At times it’s been pure agony. Six visits to the Q-School. Injuries. Illnesses. Insomnia. Gut-wrenching periods of self-doubt. Less frequently he’s been too high, too confident. But Michael Hoey, a golfer who’s worn his human frailties on his sleeve like a badge of honour since he turned professional nine years ago, embraced his fear of failure (and success) by clinching a career-changing victory at the Old Course on Sunday.
Not only did he hold off two of his major winning countrymen in a surging Rory McIlroy and a dogged Graeme McDowell to win the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at the Home of Golf by two shots, he did so with one of the great finishes seen on the hallowed links of St Andrews, closing with three birdies in his last four holes for a round of 68 and a tournament record total of 22 under par.
His three shot overnight lead was history after six holes and when he trailed an inspired McIlroy by a shot with seven to play and then three-putted the par-five 14th to remain in arrears, even he started to calculate what third or fourth place money might do for his chances of making the top 60 in the Race to Dubai.
“I was struggling today and thought about [how much I’d get for] third, fourth. But then I thought, ‘Don’t think like that. One shot at a time. You can finish this off.’”
His response was superb. A birdie at the 15th saw him draw level with McIlroy on 20 under before he hit a seven iron inside a foot at the next to move clear. McIlroy saw that one up close as he waited on the 17th tee and couldn’t find the birdie he needed at either of the last two holes to force a play-off.
Hoey played the 17th in textbook fashion to lay one hand on the trophy, following a 312 yard drive with another imperious seven iron and two solid putts. One clear playing the 18th, the 32-year old hit a bump and run through the Valley of Sin to six feet and stroked home the right to left putt to claim a cheque for €588,149, a move to 15th in the Race to Dubai that could be worth three major starts next year, and a giant leap into the world’s top 100.
“I didn’t intend to have to do that,” he said of his three birdies in the last four holes. “I was struggling on the greens and didn’t have the rhythm with the long game but I found it. Luckily enough I found it at the right time.
“The shot to 16th was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit. The 17th - such a hard hole - but I played it just the way I needed to. Two seven irons came off perfect.”
Asked on Saturday night what victory would mean to him, Hoey confessed it would almost be “too much”.
“Almost scared of it,” he said following his victory on Sunday.
He need be scared no longer after winning with a tournament record score to earn his third European Tour win, his second of the year, and a place in this year’s WGC- HSBC Champions and next season’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
After a birdie at the second, Hoey bogeyed the third and seventh as McIlroy birdied the second, eagled the third and birdied the sixth, seventh and ninth to go out in 30 and lead on 19 under par.
Playing partner McDowell had moved level with Hoey on 18 under after three birdies in his first six. But the Ballymoney man birdied the eighth and ninth to draw level with McIlroy on 19 under before the US Open champion moved clear on 20 under with a simple two at the 11th.
Hoey missed from four feet there to remain one behind and he was soon tied for second when McDowell birdied the 12th.
McIlroy was at his charging best but his short game and course management let him down over the last seven holes and he failed to kill off the man he’d admired when he was a junior at Shandon Park.
As McDowell’s putting touch deserted him, Hoey played the kind of golf that saw him hailed in the late 1990’s as the next Irish superstar.
He won the British Amateur in 2001, played a starring role with McDowell and Luke Donald in that year’s winning Walker Cup team and almost made the cut in the 2002 Masters.
He turned pro at the same time as McDowell but failed to find the mental strength to bring the best out of his huge talent.
As McDowell won his fourth European Tour start in August 2002, Hoey had to wait until 2006 to earn his tour card and until 2009 for his first European Tour win.
He got his second in Madeira this year, confessing that he no longer felt jealous of McDowell or Donald’s successes. He was happy to be Michael Hoey and that showed on Sunday.
“Yeah, it’s taken a long time, but in a weird way, you enjoy it more, because struggling, six years of Qualifying School. It’s not nice, when you’re running out of money and you’re confused about your golf swing and you’re away every week travelling, no family life.”
“So, there’s points there where you think, do I want to do this; do I want to continue with this. But I love the game ….. “
Q. Can you remember any particular times you said, where you thought, I’ve had had enough of this?
MICHAEL HOEY: I played in the Masters in 2002, and then turned pro that year. Then struggled — got seven invites and struggled. Short game wasn’t good enough. Long game wasn’t far away but short game wasn’t up to top players out here. I think I made two cuts out of seven. Just missed the Qualifying School. The next year I was playing Euro Pro and missing cuts, four Euro Pro events. That was tough at that stage, I had to go to first stage of Qualifying School, but I won the first, and third second stage, and that gave me a bit of a boost and was making enough money to keep paying my way.
But 2003, to go from Augusta to not great golf courses on the Euro Pro Tour, it’s a big change.
Q. So the greens on the Euro Pro are not as good as Augusta?
MICHAEL HOEY: You have to play wherever you’re playing, but you have to find your own inspiration.
Q. Two guys you know so well — have you been inspired by them, have they been an inspiration?
MICHAEL HOEY: Totally, yeah. It has not sunk in yet. When I’m playing HSBC and Valderrama, and maybe travelling a little bit with the guys next year to maybe the States, I’ll think, yeah, you know, I belong, I’ve earned my way into these events, 22-under in the Dunhill Links.
I struggled with — my belief has been high and low. At times I’ve thought, I’m unbelievably good and at times I’ve felt, I just don’t have the consistency, which is what it’s all about. Whereas now, I’ve got that consistency.
McDowell and McIlroy were disappointed to settle for joint third and second respectively.
“Yeah, it’s great to see [Hoey win],” McIlroy said. “Like I wanted to win, but to me, I don’t care who wins now because I’m not. It’s tough for me but it’s still another good finish. I’ve been very consistent, which is a good thing, but I want to get wins and that’s the most important thing.”
McDowell was a little more giving than his fellow Ulsterman, when it came to handing out pats on the back.
Hoey explained: “Obviously Graeme was great to play with. He’s such a battler. Wants to win it. And if you hit a good shot, he’s like, “Great shot, go get it.” And he said to me, “Knock it in” a few times on the green. Fortunately at the end I was able to put a bit of fight on myself.”
McDowell paid tribute to his former Walker Cup partner, acknowledging the superb striking from the 14th home.
“Happy for him,” McDowell said. “I know how talented he is and I know how hard the Tour is. He’s probably been an underachiever for how quality of a ball-striker he is, and he showed some class today. Hit some outstanding golf shots.
“Like I said his second shot to 16 and the second shot to 17, really, the whole back nine, you hit a driver off the deck on 14, which had us all just kind of going, ‘wow.’ He’s that good, and fair play to him.”
Padraig Harrington showed signs of a return to some consistent form when he closed with a 69 to finish eighth and move up to 71st in the Race to Dubai standings and closer to the top 60 who will contest the Dubai World Championship.