Michael Hoey moved into contention for a Ryder Cup place when he closed with a second successive 65 to win the Trophée Hassan II by three shots from Damien McGrane at Golf du Palais Royal in Morocco.
A mercurial talent with a once fragile temperament, the 33-year old from Belfast moved up to ninth in the European Ryder Cup Points list and took his career earnings beyond €2m with a fourth European Tour victory worth €250,000.
The former British Amateur champion - a Walker Cup winner with Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell more than a decade ago - finished on 17 under par after a majestic performance over the last two rounds.
Yet he admits that winning always comes as something of a shock to him and while he claims he hasn’t been thinking of making Jose Maria Olazabal’s side to face the USA in Chicago in September, it is now something more than a pipe dream after he took his points tally to within 272,000 of Paul Lawrie, the man holding down the fifth and final place available from the European Points List.
“I’ve not really been thinking about it, but I’m obviously in contention,” Hoey said of the Ryder Cup qualifying race.
Whatever about that ambition, he moved up to 14th in the Race to Dubai with €316,798 and said: “It’s all a bit surreal at the moment but it always feels like that for me.
“I was really trying to stay in the present all day and go through the routines of one shot at a time and everything else and then I was really surprised to see Damien had dropped shots as I played the 17th but it was great to have that three shot lead playing the last.
“When I saw that I just wanted to get good drive down the last because it is a really tough hole and I managed to do that and the hit a great approach in there. I actually hit all the right shots at the right times over the closing holes which was really satisfying.”
Hoey beat Rory McIlroy at the Dunhill Links Championship last October to make the world’s top 100. Now he’s 74th and hoping to become a more consistent challenger for victory having failed to record a solitary top 10 finish since his win at St Andrews last year.
He has already qualified for the Open at Lytham and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and he knows that he will need a big week in one of those or another big win to have any chance of making the side for the Ryder Cup matches at Medinah.
Ryder Cup was certainly a long way from his mind when he opened with a 74 but he responded with a 67 and then followed that with a 14-under par weekend.
“I was actually thinking that I might struggle to make the cut after shooting two over in the first round but I started swinging the club really well and the confidence was there so it was great to back that up with the scores too,” he said. “The third round was a good 67 and then to shoot two 65s over the weekend was pretty special really.
“Wins kind of sneak up on you in some ways. I suppose you hope that you are going to win every week but then you know that you are not going to do it every week. No-one does, so you look at trying to prepare right and get the rhythm right every week and hope it’s your week. That is golf – you can’t think too far ahead.
“Thankfully the rhythm and tempo were all there over the weekend and the putting was great to – you have to putt well to shoot two 65s. I have been working with Jamie Gough a lot on my leg action and it is really paying dividends. I said the other day that this is the best I have ever swung it and I really believe that.
“It is definitely the best I have ever swung it. Definitely. That is possible the most exciting thing about it – I just need to keep doing it more consistently now.”
“This golf course great and I always want to do well when we are playing a really great course and I have been lucky to win on some of the best, especially at the Dunhill. I think playing great courses inspires me and that certainly happened here over the he last three rounds.”
McGrane shared the lead with a round to play along with Matteo Manasserop who had to win to have a chance of qualifying for The Masters via the world’s top 50, but fell away to joint sixth with a 72.
The Kells man, 40, led by three after starting with back-to-back birdies, then found himself two behind when Hoey followed a two on the short second with four successive birdies from the fifth.
It was nip and tuck again when he bogeyed the long 10th and McGrane made four, but three more birdies in four holes from the short 14th were to prove crucial.
McGrane was just one behind Hoey with five to play but he bogeyed the par-five 17th when his pitch from a heavy lie ran through the green, dashing his hopes of ending a four year European Tour drought following his maiden win in the 2008 Volvo China Open.
“I am very disappointed now but I was three shots behind the pace, it wasn’t as if I finished one shot behind Michael,” said McGrane, who picked up €166,660 for second place after his closing 70.
“Fair play to Michael he had a great tournament - 17 under par is good scoring. But you know I finished second by myself which is a bonus.
“I am content but I really thought teeing off today at lunchtime that this was my tournament. But it’s possible to go low out there and some people can shoot from the pack and that’s what Michael did today [Jamie Donaldson shot a course record 61]. I’ll live to fight another day.”
McGrane struggled to keep his card last year, finishing 115th in the Race to Dubai standings, but is now 28th with earnings of €197,326.
“It was a long week and a tough week for me, being top of the leaderboard all week long is draining, especially if you are not used to it,” McGrane confessed. “I am not used to being on top of the leaderboard every day.
“I bounce off it an odd time but that’s about it. But I am content. I am a bit disappointed. Michael won it, didn’t he.”
Hoey had the luck of the draw with the weather delays and got to rest on Saturday morning as McGrane was forced to rise early to complete his second round. Yet he wasn’t using that as an excuse.
“I feel drained after a tough week but I can’t take it from Michael, he scored great today. I played a lot of good golf today too and I was pleased with that, so I have to take the positives from that.
“Making par at the last earned me quite a lot of euros and to be beaten my an Irishman, there couldn’t be a better way for it to happen, I suppose. [Two 65s by Michael] is incredible. That’s great golf and you can’t take it from him.”
Shane Lowry closed with a 68 to tie for 17th on eight under to earn €17,888 but Big Break Ireland winner Mark Murphy failed to make a birdie in a 76 and slipped back to tied 52nd on one under, earning €5,550.
Tied for 25th with a round to go, the Kerryman had hoped to make a charge for a top-10 place that would have earned him a place in this week’s Sicilian Open. He will return to the tour for the Irish Open at Royal Portrush in June as part of his reward for winning the reality TV show.
But he will head north with his confidence higher than ever after learning in Morocco that playing on tour is no longer a dream but a reality worth fighting for and one he can achieve.
List of Hassan II Trophy winners
YEAR PLAYER NATIONALITY
1971 Orville Moody
1972 Ron Cerrudo
1973 Billy Casper
1974 Billy Casper
1975 Larry Ziegler
1976 Billy Casper
1977 Lee Trevino
1978 Peter Townsend
1979 Mike Brannan
1980 Ed Sneed
1981 Bob Eastwood
1982 Frank Conner
1983 Ron Streck
1984 Roger Maltbie
1985 Ken Green
1991 Vijay Singh
1992 Payne Stewart
1993 Payne Stewart
1994 Martin Gates
1995 Nick Price
1996 Ignacio Garrido
1997 Colin Montgomerie
1998 Santiago Luna
2000 David Toms
2001 Roger Chapman
2002 Joakim Haeggman
2003 Santiago Luna
2004 Santiago Luna
2005 Erik Compton
2006 Sam Torrance
2007 Padraig Harrington
2008 Ernis Els
2010 Rhys Davies
2011 David Horsey
2012 Michael Hoey