World class. Those two words were used by Graeme McDowell to describe the talent of Michael Hoey after his fellow Ulsterman’s brilliantly defiant victory in the Dunhill Links Championship.
Prior to Sunday, Hoey, 32 and a six-times visitor to Qualifying School during nine years as a professional, has long been viewed by his peers as a player of vast, unfulfilled potential.
Two European Tour victories, including this year’s Madeira Open, and three wins on the Challenge Tour represented scant reward for a player of his talents.
The Ballymoney-born man certainly set that record straight at St Andrews as he stamped his authority on a field which included 13 Major Champions and five of the world’s top-six.
Yet Hoey’s greatest achievement in a roller-coaster final round was to stare down the demons of self-doubt which tripped him up too often in the past. Having made such a massive personal breakthrough on The Old Course, Hoey should now go on and emulate the astonishing success of Rory McIlroy, McDowell and Open Champion Darren Clarke at the Majors.
McDowell and World No 1 Luke Donald took enormous pleasure in seeing Hoey, their GB&I teammate during an historic first Walker Cup win on US soil in 2001, deliver at last on the promise of his youth.
It was tough. Three ahead going into the final round, his lead evaporated after six holes and, as he trailed McIlroy by one with six to play, Hoey confessed: “I began thinking how much I’d get for third”.
Instead, he found the inner-strength to overhaul a flagging McIlroy with three birdies in the brilliant final four holes of his closing 68.
The tournament record score (22-under) was Hoey’s, along with the biggest cheque by far of his career, £504,352.
Marvellous 7-iron approach shots at 16 and 17 were obvious highlights but McDowell simply said “wow” when describing the honey-sweet driver Hoey hit off the deck to the front edge of the green at the par five 14th so that’s why he knew Hoey as ‘Magico’ during their boyhood.
Hoey’s victory is a record fifth Northern Ireland players on Tour in 2011, including those two Majors!
Of 22 victories by Irish touring professionals since 2008 (excluding seniors and challenge tour golf), 16 have been achieved by players from Ulster, including 10 of the last 11.
With Hoey, McIlroy and McDowell in the top-three at St Andrews on Sunday, this stunning golden spell by northern golfers is set to continue.
Hoey soared 173 places to 98th in yesterday’s world rankings, while Padraig Harrington, an impressive eighth at St Andrews, climbed six rungs to 78th.
Meanwhile, Tiger Woods (pictured) has washed out of the golf’s elite world top-50 for the first time since October 20, 1996 and his first few months as a professional.
Woods was No 51 in the official rankings issued yesterday, a profound and deeply symbolic moment in his nightmarish descent into mediocrity since November 2009.
Having missed last month’s prestigious FedEx Cup playoffs, Woods this week makes his first appearance on the PGA Tour’s ‘second tier’ Fall Series in the Frys.com Open at the CordeValle Resort near San Jose in his native California.
Despite Tiger’s fall from grace, the organisers expect attendance figures to soar from 30,000 last season to 70,000-plus this week, with 300 media credentials, three times more than 2011, already issued.
During a Presidents Cup conference call, Tiger was upbeat, saying: “I’m really excited to get back out there and compete, knowing that I’m finally healthy enough to do it now.”
That’d be more believable if Tiger hadn’t spun exactly the same line before missing the cut at the PGA Championship.
Frankly, with every department of his game so far out of kilter and in need of repair, it’ll take a near-miracle for Tiger’s harrowing freefall to bottom out before the end of the year, if ever never mind the end of this week.