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Irish Open: Hoey determined to regain his place among big hitters

 

By Adam McKendry

Michael Hoey says that getting back to playing on the European Tour at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open this week has been a real buzz for him.

Hoey, who has this year mostly been playing on the Challenge Tour, the level below the European Tour, got an invite to the event only last week.

The 38-year-old responded to that by shooting an opening round of 68, four-under par, and says that being back on Europe's premier tour is where he wants to be.

"It's phenomenal," the Ulsterman said. "It's like an Open to be honest, you get all that excitement. I holed a long putt earlier and the crowd's response was excellent."

The five-time European Tour winner put his good round, which has him four shots off overnight leaders Daniel Im and Benjamin Hebert, down to his consistent driving.

"I've taken some of my good form from the Challenge Tour into here," Hoey said. "I'm driving it well so I'm giving myself lots of chances.

"I'm hitting a lot of fairways. If you're in the rough here you never know how it's going to fly so you've got to hit your fairways to give yourself plenty of chances.

"I felt like (my score) could have been six (under), but still, four under is a pretty good start."

Hoey also believes that there are plenty of low scores to be had around the Strand course this week, and is targeting one himself to put himself right into contention for victory.

"If you're on the fairways you'll be hitting lots of short irons, and the greens are soft so you could go six or seven under," he said.

"Those par-fives, if you hit a good drive you'll do well on them. But at the same time, if you're off the fairway, then par is sometimes a very good score on them."

Flawless rounds of 64 from Im and Hebert established the course record at Portstewart and gave the unlikely duo - with a combined world ranking of 796 - a one-shot lead over Jon Rahm, Oliver Fisher and Matthew Southgate.

Southgate did not have a practice round after qualifying for the Open Championship for the third time in four years on Tuesday, but the 28-year-old from Southend fired seven birdies as he thrived on memories of his fourth-place finish last year.

"It completely changed my life," said Southgate, who spent the week of the 2015 Open recovering from an operation for testicular cancer.

"I think the biggest thing for me was that I always thought I was good enough to perform like that, and it was more like proving a point to the rest of the world.

"That put me in a nice place mentally because I stopped worrying about, 'Can you do this, what do other people think of you and have you got the game?'.

"It became, 'Actually Matt Southgate is good enough to compete', which is a huge monkey to get off your back."

Matt Fitzpatrick, David Drysdale and Jamie Donaldson shared sixth place on six under, with Olympic champion Justin Rose and local favourite Graeme McDowell among those a shot further back.

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