Michael Hoey will be hoping to hang on to his three shot lead when he stands to the 18th tee at St Andrews with his old pal Graeme McDowell. Picture Stuart Adams /www.golffile.ie Four Irishmen are in the top four at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. But while fourth-placed Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy are desperate for a win and second-placed Graeme McDowell could do with a boost after his annus horribilis, Michael Hoey will be more determined than the rest to close out what would be the biggest triumph of his career.

After a 64 - his lowest round since the opening day of the Iskandar Johor Open nearly 12 months ago - Harrington put Hoey’s three-shot lead over McDowell into perspective:

Michael, he’s a good winner. He’s good from the front. It’s taken him a while to get comfortable on the Tour. He’s always been a very talented player and this could be his arrival tomorrow. This is a step up for him. He’s won plenty of tournaments. He knows how to win, but this will be showing he’s arrived.

Winner of the Amateur Championship in 2001, Hoey was a Walker Cup hero alongside McDowell in the US that year. But since then his career has been a series of emotional highs and lows that has brought three wins on the Challenge Tour and two on the main European Tour since 2005.

“Michael has always been a very talented player,” said McDowell, who used to call Hoey ‘Mágico’ when they were kids on the Ulster golf scene in the late 90s. “He’s a great ball-striker, a great swing. He has always had the talent and won the British Amateur in 2001 before playing on a winning Walker Cup side.

“It’s a fine line between guys who go on to become the best in the world and guys who become journeymen pros. And you wouldn’t say Michael is a journeyman, he’s popped up twice and won on tour, and won well each time.

“When he applies himself and puts it all together he’s as good as anyone out there. Why he doesn’t put it together more often, who knows?”

Hoey will joke about being “tortured” by the game but there’s more than a grain of truth to that.

“I’ve probably just been really hard on myself. Trying to relax is obviously what I need to do and I’ve done that well so far,” the 32-year old said at Carnoustie following his third successive round of 66 this week.

“Golf is very mental, you have to accept poor shots. It’s great to be in the lead in a really big tournament but there’s a long way to go. Everything went very well today. My short game was unbelievable, the best it’s ever been.”

After three successive rounds of 66,  Hoey leads on 18 under from McDowell, who shot 67 at St Andrews, with Louis Oosthuizen in solo third on 14 under. Harrington finished with four birdies in his last five for a 64 on the Old Course to finish in a seven-man tie for fourth with McIlroy (66), Simon Dyson (63), Jaco Van Zyl, Luke Donald, George Murray and Tommy Fleetwood.

McDowell is just happy to have emerged from a mini slump this week and if he fails to win, he’ll build for his next outing on the PGA Tour before defending in Valderrama.

McIlroy wants to win agai before the year is out and turn some of those top 5s into victories. When he is on top form, he is unbeatable, but that only occurs once a year and he’d like to show he can still win without his A1 game, as Tiger Woods used to do.

Harrington last won in October last year but has slipped to 84th in the world and needs a big cheque to ensure his place in the Dubai World Championship finale in December. Like McIlroy, he’s five shots off the lead on a leaderboard jam-packed with names who could spring a surprise and win.

It’s going to take something very low to beat Hoey but Harrington is putting well enough again to dream of a new course record 62:

“If the weather is good, you have to be aggressive. Obviously the pins will be a little tougher tomorrow. But still, you’ve got to take your chances, if it’s a good day, you’re going to think you need to shoot 67 to stay in position and if you’re going to catch Michael, you’re going to have to go 64 again at least.”

As for the rest of the Irish, Shane Lowry is tied 41st on seven under after a 72 at Carnoustie with Peter Lawrie tied 49th on six under after a 73 at the same track.

The cut fell at five under which meant that Paul Cutler - bound for PQ2 next week - missed out by three shots after a 70 at St Andrews.

Damien McGrane (par), Darren Clarke (+1), Paul McGinley (+3) and Gareth Maybin (+6) also made their exits on Saturday.