Michael Hoey. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ieRory McIlroy might have reached world No 2, won the US Open and finished the season as the world No 3 but if the world rankings are a barometer of golfing merit then Michael Hoey can argue that he was the most improved Irish player this year.

The Shandon Park man leapt 259 places up the rankings from 361st at the end of 2010 to 102nd in the final standings this year thanks to his wins in the Madeira Islands Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championshp.

Simon Thornton won his card back through the Challenge Tour and made the second biggest leap of 154 places to 319th while Open champion Darren Clarke, despite his poor form since Sandwich, climbed 50 spots to end the year as the planet’s 48th best player.

Shane Lowry and McIlroy were the only other Irish players to move up the pecking order with the Clara man up 42 places to 119th and McIlroy up seven to third.

There is no doubt that McIlroy’s improvement of seven places inside the world’s top 10 is far more impressive - and difficult - that moving from 361st to 102nd. Yet given Hoey’s erratic form in recent years it would be churlish to deny him the honorary title of “most improved” Irish pro.

The other six Irishmen in the world’s top 500 all went backwards this year with Padraig Harrington’s demise the most eye-catching as he plummet 62 places from 23rd to 85th. Putting Harrington’s fall in perspective, he is now “only” the 29th best European player in the world.

Graeme McDowell was always going to find it next to impossible to follow up his amazing 2010 season and the Portrush man fell seven places from sixth at the end of last year to 13th.

Further down the list, Gareth Maybin was the biggest loser as he slithered 151 rungs down the ladder to 261st, holding on to his card by just over €4,000.

Close friends Damien McGrane and Peter Lawrie also had discreet seasons by their standards.

But while the Kells man only just held on to his tour card as he fell 114 places to 239th, Lawrie qualified for the Dubai World Championship.

The Dubliner was 106th last December but ended 2011 ranked 152nd in the world having recorded just two Top-10 finishes compared to eight in 2010.

Rank (End 2010)
1 (9) Luke Donald
2 (1) Lee Westwood
3 (10) Rory McIlroy
4 (3) Martin Kaymer
5 (24) Adam Scott
6 (7) Steve Stricker
7 (14) Dustin Johnson
8 (38) Jason Day
9 (34) Charl Schwartzel
10 (213) Webb Simpson

Other Irish
13 (6) Graeme McDowell
48 (98) Darren Clarke
85 (23) Padraig Harrington
102 (361) Michael Hoey
119 (161) Shane Lowry
152 (106) Peter Lawrie
239 (125) Damien McGrane
261 (110) Gareth Maybin
319 (473) Simon Thornton
472 (437) Paul McGinley