Michael Hoey impressively brushed off the cobwebs accumulated during his three-week break following his Dunhill Links victory by cruising into contention for this third win of the season in the Castellon Masters.
The Ulsterman race to the top of the leaderboard at six under par through 14 holes and while he three putted the 16th and doubled the next, he signed off with a 45 footer for birdie at the 18th to card a four under 67 that left him just three shots off the lead.
Recharged and confident following his career changing win at St Andrews, Hoey shrugged off those three droped shots at the 16th and 17th with that closing birdie and made it clear that he only has eyes for victory in Spain.
He said: “I was playing really well and six under after a nice par putt on 15 and then just a bit unlucky really.
“On the par three (16th) I had a putt through the fringe and it just killed it and the greens were a little bit bumpy late in the day. I hit a good second putt…”
As for his six at the tough 17th, he said: “I hit a great drive down 17 and had most of the hard work done and the wind died as I hit it and I slightly turned it over right to left and it held up on the bank.
“I literally had no shot and caught my knee on the way down in the swing because it was just so awkward - a giraffe legs sort of shot - and I was a bit unlucky. But that’s golf. I had a few good breaks earlier on.
“It felt relatively easy to get to six under but then that’s golf, a three-putt and then you get nearly an unplayable. But I holed a really good putt on the last from around 45 feet, so it was a good day.”
Ross McGowan, under pressure to keep his card at 163rd in the Race to Dubai, holed his four iron approach to the 503 yard 17th for eagle two en route to a seven under 64 and a two shot lead over Richard McEvoy and Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti.
But while Damien McGrane shot a grinding 69, the course proved tricky for Gareth Maybin (72), Peter Lawrie (73) and Shane Lowry (78).
“It’s the kind of course that if you play well, you think it’s easy,” Hoey said. “But if you get slighty out of position, it can be really difficult as well.
“There are a lot of little trees and you can get flyers and the greens are tough. So I was happy and I was swinging it well, so just press on tomorrow.”
Ranked 15th in the Race to Dubai and 99th in the world, Hoey wants to push on and make a move into the world’s top 50.
That would be good enough to secure a return to Augusta National, where he missed the cut as an amateur in 2002. And he appears to have gained in confidence following his two European Tour wins this year.
He said: “It was nice to see I was leading the tournament and then I saw Ross McGowan got to six under and I was a little bit unlucky. But it is great to be up there swinging well and putting well and just to be able to enjoy it.
“I wanted to play last week (in Portugal) but I had a little injury…. But it’s nice to be back. I was a little bored at home. I had three weeks off at of four and even though I won the Dunhill, I wanted to get out and compete again.
“I wasn’t celebrating the whole two weeks. We just had three or four pints of Guinness on the Sunday night and I was quite tipsy and tired and just headed to bed. That was enough. I was happy that I only had that amount.”
As for the €588,149 cheque he picked up at St Andrews, Hoey revealed that he hasn’t made any impulse buys.
“After tax my wife keeps reminding me that we don’t have that much,” he said. “It’s not nearly as much as you’d think. We’ll probably put it into the house. Do something sensible.”
Lawrie was two under after 11 holes but dropped four shots coming home for a 73 that left him tied for 75th.
At 55th in the Race to Dubai, the Dubliner is keen to consolidate his place in the Top 60 who will qualify for December’s Dubai World Championship.
Shane Lowry is 62nd in that race but he looks certain now to miss the cut after dropping six shots in as many holes around the turn as he struggled to find fairways.
Maybin and McGrane are more worried about keeping their cards than making the Dubai World Championship.
The Ulsterman, 112th in the Race to Dubai, had a 32 putts in his one over 72 while 107th ranked McGrane scrambled well to piece together a two under 69.