Putting coach Phil Kenyon might not have been amused by our recent Darren Clarke anecdote regarding the Dungannon man’s deep mistrust of his ability to putt as the Open loomed at Sandwich.
Clarke made a mockery of his own assertion that “I still can’t f***ing” putt by winning the Claret Jug with an impressive display on the greens when it really counted.
And Kenyon can take a bow again following Michael Hoey’s sensational two stroke victory in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on the Old Course on Sunday.
The Ulsterman said as much as he reflected on a week that saw him finish sixth in the putts per green in regulation statistics and seventh for putts per round with an average of 28.7.
Always a superb ball-striker, Hoey knows that consistent putting is the key to contending at the top level and he believes he’s found some consistency in that department now as he seeks to build on his rise to 98th in the world and 15th in the Race to Dubai.
Q Epic stuff. How pleasing was that?
I was forced into producing some good shots towards the end. I thought I was slipping and I wasn’t stroking it on the greens but fortunately I found a nice but of rhythm with my game. My swing thought all week was just try to keep it smooth. The difference was that I putted consistently well for the first three days and half of the last round. And that’s what got my score to more than 20 under. My short game was brilliant, my chipping as well. It couldn’t have been much better really.
Q Has that been the difference for you over the past few years? Putting?
Definitely. In Madeira as well, my chipping had improved. I had been working with my coach Jamie Gough on straightforward chip shots that you need on links - little low bumpers. I played a lot of them on the Old Course on Thursday, Kingsbarns on Friday and at Carnoustie I played a few bump and runs as well. I was also sub 30 putts every day.
Q Is that what makes Graeme and Rory the players they are?
You can see it with Graeme. He doesn’t waste shots around the green. He is very, very solid and a great putter. And my putting was at that level last week for three and a half rounds. And that was good enough. I got the breaks. When I hit a bad shot, I got a good lie. I holed a couple of long putts and I holed a bunker shot. Everything went right for me and you need that to happen.
Q Obviously you’ve had your ups and downs. This must be a huge high.
Absolutely. With the strength of field - world No 1, 2, 3 and 4. If you had said to me at the start of the week that you’ll win the Dunhill Links, I knew my game was improving, but I don’t know if I would have believed that. It is by far the biggest high.
Q There are a lot of concrete benefits in terms of money, world ranking points, exemptions and what not, but what’s the biggest thing you take from this win?
Four days of solid golf. Really low scoring. That’s pro golf and that’s what I’ve got out of it. I can putt and the short game was consistent for four days. If you can do that they you can be more consistent because that’s what I have been lacking in a season - consistency. I just want to be a bit more consistent and I think I can do that now. There is no point in getting into all these events I can get into if I can’t be consistent in them. If I can be consistent, I can gradually improve my ranking and things like that.
Q At 15th in the Race to Dubai, you are looking good for a few appearances in the majors next year.
The goal is to make sure I am in the top 30 in the Order of Merit to make The Open at Lytham and after that the goal is just to play well in that World Golf Championship in Shanghai and obviously in the Bridgestone Invitational next year. If I can swing it like that and hole a few putts, there is no reason why not. When you see a goal ahead of you, you think it is too lofty. But when you are actually doing it and putting well and you are already six under, it doesn’t seem that difficult. It is just when you are not doing it that it seems unbelievably difficult.
Q Now that you have a taste for it, you must feel you belong in that kind of company now.
Yeah. Playing with Louis [Oosthuizen] and Graeme, I started to feel really comfortable. Maybe not quite so much at the start of the round. But when we got towards the back nine and they were swinging it good, I really sort of chilled out as well and that helped. Graeme is great and I had good banter with [his caddie Ken] Comboy between shots and then I felt really comfortable. They are really good guys and Louis’ caddie as well. It’s just that kind of pro-am format and that helps me. Talking to my partner going down the fairway takes my mind of how I am going. I found that two years ago in the Dunhill when I played with Bob Brannock from Genworth Financial. I was going really well until I made a nine on the 14th when I was in third place. That’s when it has its benefits.
I actually played in a pro-am last week, Darren Clarke and Ian Botham celebrity invitational at Archerfield Links in Edinburgh. And I was leading that as well over 36 holes and there was a nice prize for first, hours in a private jet. And I actually finished triple-bogey, bogey to tie with Darren and then lose on the back nine on a countback. But I was starting to hit it good and putt really well and I took that with me into the Dunhill Links.
Q Who is your putting guru these day?
Phil Kenyon. He just started with Lee Westwood last week and has worked with Darren Clarke for a while too and improved his stroke. He’s improved my stroke a lot. It gets too long in the back swing and gets inconsistent if I go to far back. I just shortened the stroke a bit and I get a better strike on the ball. So I have just stuck to the drills and I understand it. He’s a really good putting coach. He works with Harold Swash, who worked with Padraig Harrington for many years.
Q Have you managed to have a look at the Ryder Cup qualifying lists?
No. Where am I? All the way up there?
Q You’re second in the European Points List with 596548.80 points. Does that enter your thoughts at all? If you can win the Dunhill Links, shouldn’t you be thinking you can make the Ryder Cup team?
Second? Wow. Well that sort of money is far different to anything I have ever had. I just kept saying to myself on Sunday, if you keep playing well, it will take care of itself. It was easier for Graeme and Louis not to think about [the money] so I have got to take the same approach now and not get into money. It becomes too much if you start thinking about it and it’s the same with the Ryder Cup. On the golf course, if I think about how I am going. I enjoy knowing I am going well, but I don’t want to get into the score. It’s like looking at the leaderboard. What difference does that make? You are trying your best anyway. It is not like you can try and hold off. It works for me, not getting into the results process.
Q Do you ever think about how good a player you could be?
I am trying to think that now. I surprised myself how well I did with my short game. But some of the feel shots I hit surprised me. But there is something there that stopped me from giving up professional golf, because there were times when I was not enjoying it at all. But whatever kept me going has now become a bit more realised.
Q When did the low point come? Was there a moment in particular?
Well, 2007 was quite low because I had won early in the season on the Challenge Tour in April in Italy and that set me up to finish top 10 in the rankings to get my card, if I just been consistent. And I just missed all the other cuts. That year I just didn’t understand my swing and I was struggling with different swing thoughts and didn’t even make it to the Challenge Tour Grand Final. Then I went to the Second Stage of the Qualifying School and missed the cut there. To start off the season so well and then get completely lost and not to do anything the rest of the year was really disappointing even though myself and Gareth Maybin played well to qualify for the World Cup. So I had little highs that kept me going. But I didn’t have the consistency.
Q You must have been in a big downer after PQ2?
Yeah. Big time. I felt almost bad going to the World Cup when I wasn’t a qualified European Tour player. I was thinking after missing the second stage, you almost shouldn’t be playing in this.
Q That was the year you and Gareth went to Aruba from Kazakhstan to try and qualify.
I remember it well, searching on-line in Kazakhstan for flight combinations to Aruba. It was really expensive playing on the Challenge Tour and I’d like to thank the Irish Sports Council for all the help they have given me over the years [Hoey received €125,000 between 2002 and 2008], Irish Life for sponsoring me and Horizon Sports Management for what they did for me when I was playing on the Challenge Tour. Obviously Horizon can do a lot for me now but they also did a lot for me when I was on Challenge Tour and kept me going.
Q What are your ambitions now? What goals have you set yourself?
I really want to do well in the Open next year and play well in that tournament. I want to make the cut and just be around at the weekend. Not just that one tournament, because there are lots of others, like the HSBC. But I want to be about in it. I don’t just want to pitch up and make up the numbers.
Q You said something very similar when you won the British Amateur in 2001 and qualified for the Open and the Masters.
I putted terrible in the 2002 Masters and missed the cut by one. But I also have [the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at] Firestone next year which is a nice surprise. I’d like to play solid in that event and enjoy it.
Q You were saying after your win in Madeira earlier this year that you were over being jealous of your old Walker Cup team mates, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell. Happy being Michael Hoey?
Yeah. I’ve taken a different path. A very different path. But I have got a lot of satisfaction from grinding, which you wouldn’t put anyone through because it is not enjoyable at the time. But when you reflect on it, there is satisfaction there.
Q You are living in Ascot now, I believe. How is that working out?
[My wife] Bev and I are trying west London for a while. We’ve moved all are stuff over. We were thinking about the travel, sitting in Heathrow and Gatwick most weeks and thought, instead of doing that, why not come down here. If we don’t like it, we can go back but so far, so good. It’s close to the racecourse and it’s 26 degrees at the moment. That’s to change tomorrow but the weather has been a lot better down here. I was skeptical because you don’t get to know people as well here as you do back home but with our lifestyle, the convenience of travel is a massive factor. So we are just renting for now to see if we like it.
Q What’s the schedule from here on?
I am playing in Portugal next week and then it depends. I may play Valderrama before the HSBC Champions and then I’ll play Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai. Maybe Indonesia after Singapore. It is a nice situation to be in. I might skip Valderrama to get over the jet lag early before the HSBC but we will wait and see. I have loads of choices and my manager Conor Ridge is working on things for next year already. There are a lot of tournaments I can potentially get into and new ones popping up on the schedule. It’s all good.
Q What’s in Michael Hoey’s bag?
Driver: Titleist 910D3 (8.5 degree)
Fairway Wood: Titleist 910F 3-wood (13.5 degree)
Irons (2-PW): Titleist 712 AP2
Wedges: Titleist Vokey Design Spin Milled (54 and 58 degree)
Putter: Yes! Victoria II
Ball: Titleist Pro V1x
Footwear: FootJoy FJ Icon
Glove: Titleist Players Glove