Michael Hoey insists he’s ready to go through the grind of Q-School for the first time since he won his card in 2008 and even play Challenge Tour next season as he bids to regain his full playing rights after a year of 20 missed cuts from 28 starts.
The 37 year old from Belfast — a five time European Tour winner — tees it up with Rosapenna’s Ruaidhri McGee and England’s Ross McGowan in the first round at PGA Catalunya Resort today hoping to still be standing and inside the top 25 and ties following Thursday’s sixth and final round. West Waterford’s Gary Hurley and fellow Waterford man Kevin Phelan feel the same.
It’s been a surreal year for the former British Amateur champion and Alfred Dunhill Links winner, who admits he got his schedule completely wrong, playing 18 events in the first 25 weeks of the year with an eight place finish in the Tayto Northern Ireland Open and a run to the last 16 in the following week’s Aberdeen Asset Management Paul Lawrie Match Play the best results of a forgettable year.
“The colds have been better and I was okay early in the season,” said Hoey, who had sinus surgery 12 months ago and now suffers fewer health problems.
That said, he’s sniffling slightly when we chat, which is to be expected with two children aged 2 and 3 at home.
“It’s tough with two kids, being on the road all the time. But I still enjoy it a lot,” he said of life combining fatherhood and professional golf, his gig for the last 14 years (“and a bit”).
Health issues always appear to be part of the deal with with Hoey, who is as likeable and approachable a tour player as you will find anywhere. Even his impressions are top class with his Pádraig Harrington a timeless classic.
That said, there’s a health narrative to his disastrous year — 186th in the Race to Dubai and a fall of more than 260 places in the world.
“It’s been a weird year because I picked up something on the journey from China to Morocco and I was just exhausted,” he said when attempting to explain what went wrong. "I needed a few more days at home before the Irish Open and then I got the schedule wrong.
"I was just very, very flat. If I had had another week at home before the Irish, Wentworth, then that would have been better.”
A quick look at Hoey’s statistics shows he’s been hitting the ball as well as he did in his best years but his scoring has been poor.
“Even though I have missed lots of cuts, I have not been hit it sideways really,” he said. "I have just not been sharp.
“You need to be sharp for this game and have concentration and focus. It’s weird how it has dragged on for such a long time, but I feel okay at the moment.
“My putting has been really good — the best it’s ever been — it’s just been my scoring around the greens, not getting it in close or not picking the right shots in the wind…It’s all about focus.”
A change of coach to Northern Ireland based Seamus Duffy in recent weeks will yield short and long term benefits.
“He’s been very good. He knows his stuff and he’s at home, which is really important,” Hoey said. "You don’t get the consistency unless you have somebody at home. He got me hitting it so much better than before.”
What worries Hoey now about life on tour is the lack of opportunities for players down the pecking order compared to just a few years ago with the demise of many of the smaller, European events and the advent of more and more long haul travel.
“I know that I may have to play Challenge Tour next year because I know all the stats from Q-School,” he said. "Even if you graduate you are playing for 29 percent of the money, when it was 47 percent of the money two years ago. That’s what it is now, 29 percent. So even if I get a card I will probably play 15 tournaments and have to play some Challenge Tour.
“Okay, I might get a couple of invites and more than 15 but I am looking forward to it actually. It was 2008 when I was last at Q-School and I finished well. But it was easier then for graduated to keep their cards because you had smaller events in Madeira and Portugal you would get into.
“Yes, there are a few early season events in South Africa — and okay, I know I sound like I’m on a negative vibe here — but they changed to Rand and they are small prize funds…. €600,000.”
Despite all the challenges, Hoey still loves to compete.
“I’ll play Challenge Tour if I have to,” he said. “I can play a small event and still enjoy it. And I do feel like I am actually improving.
“It’s just that I have never really understood my swing. Always been a bit confused by it. And I am narrowing that down now. My putting has always been inconsistent but now it feels better. And the body has been good — Shane Lawlor has been great after six years with him and he says my body is in good shape and I’ll play good golf in my 40s. Should be good for another 10 years, hopefully."
Hoey just wants to get enough working knowledge of his swing to be able to fix it when it slips out of kilter. Other than that he’s not beating himself up about his year, insisting again that it was all the product of poor scheduling.
“Years ago I would have hit it sideways and putted terrible, but I am not doing that,” said Hoey, who is reunited this week with former caddie Ryan McGuigan. “As for this week, if you get through it’s ‘well done, you’re playing for 29 percent of the money.’ If not you are playing Challenge Tour next year. Whatever you do, you have to play well next year.”
McGee returns to the final stage thanks to a late reprieve. He got in as a reserve having lost out in an eight-man playoff for four spots at Second Stage.
Phelan is also back after winning his card in style in 2013 while Hurley, a Walker Cup winner in 2015, will be keen to join housemate and pal Paul Dunne on the big stage having cruised through the first two stages of Q-School this year.
As Stephen Grant, 39, missed out at the Second Stage of Q-School in the US, Hoey sees a new generation of players emerging in Europe and a change of culture.
Old school caddies — the butt-sucking, hard-drinking types — are an endangered species while young pros who hit the ball a country mile now have a “team” with their bagman also a gym buddy and room-mate.
“Experience is not totally over-rated,” Hoey said. “The equipment is so good. They new kids stand up and hit it miles. Hole putts. That’s it. Anyone is good anywhere now. You can’t predict.
“Guys like yourself are looking for superstars, and you will still get Rorys, but there are 40 Thorbjorn Olesens out there now. There are too many good players.
“That might have been Rory’s best year this year. Ever. There are only four majors a year and so many good players and so much luck required. It sounds crazy but he might never win another major. The equipment is so good that there are few standout players. The world No 1 changes so much now. "
A good tournament will do wonders for all four Irish players but there are reminders everywhere that tour life is a precarious existence.
Ask Alvaro Quiros, who heads the strongest field ever to assemble for the Final Stage, as the European Tour reports:
The Spaniard was successful at Q-School ten years ago and went on to win six times on the European Tour after earning his card, but a downturn in his fortunes over the last few seasons has brought the 33 year old to Girona as he bids to extend his run in the Race to Dubai.
A marathon six-round contest over the Stadium and Tour courses in Catalunya will test the skill and resolve of all 156 players, with the top 25 and ties winning European Tour cards for next season come close of play on Thursday, and Quiros is aware of the pressure 108 holes of golf will bring.
“I’m relaxed now, but the week hasn’t started yet,” he said. “It’s an important week for everybody because through this week we can get the European Tour card back, some of us, and some of the others can get a card for the first time.
“I did just that ten years ago, but it was a very different week. I was coming from the Challenge Tour after a year of playing well but this is a completely different story because I have been playing bad for the last year, or even the last four or five years.
“You never know, though, because golf is different, golf is a very difficult sport to explain, and hopefully this week I can see a change in my luck and in my game.
“The key this week is ‘good enough’ – being good enough to get my card again, that’s the only target this week. It doesn’t matter if I play good or bad, if I shoot decent enough scores to get the card, that’s all that matters.
“I know the Stadium Course well because we played the Spanish Open here a few years ago, but I have only played the Tour Course once – it looks like the course where you can shoot really low, but it will all depend on the weather.”
The fact that the end of Final Stage clashes with the start of the DP World Tour Championship – Quiros’ last European Tour victory, in 2011 – puts his presence at Q-School in perspective, though he remains pensive when reflecting on the inevitable fluctuations in form all golfers encounter.
“Fortunes in golf don’t really change that quick, for good or for bad,” he said. “I’ve been playing terribly for four years now, and unfortunately this is the first year I’ve really played so badly not to keep my card.
“From good to bad is a process and from bad to good is a process too, so the DP World is not even close to my mind – to be honest, the tournaments I don’t play I don’t even check the leaderboards.
“I know it’s happening next week, but that’s all I know, and it doesn’t change the fact that I am in Q-School and that’s all that really matters for now.
“Nobody wants to play in the lower categories, so everybody is trying their best to play on the European Tour, but life is life and sometimes the game is good enough to keep yourself in the top 50 in the world, as I have been for many years, and sometimes it isn’t.
“You need to find out how to play properly and that’s the only key, but I’ve had ten years on the European Tour since I last came to Q-School and, if it’s been not so good lately, they were very good years, so I am here to try to continue them.
“I’m feeling confident with my attitude and that’s the only thing I’m trying to focus on. The game goes and comes back and that’s been the issue, that’s why I’m here, but I would like to think that with the proper attitude and a little bit of game I should be able to deliver.”
Teeing up alongside Quiros in northern Spain are 35 other European Tour winners, with 70 titles between them, including five-time winners Michael Hoey and Brett Rumford, while Craig Lee and Eddie Pepperell will look to bounce back from narrowly missing on retaining their European Tour cards through the Race to Dubai.
Y.E. Yang’s debut appearance at Final Stage means that a Major Champion is competing at Q-School for the first time in history, while Edoardo Molinari and Oliver Wilson add some Ryder Cup pedigree to an already impressive field.
Nine former winners of Final Stage also return, including Steve Webster – making his first appearance since his success in 1995 – and last year’s co-champion Ulrich van den Berg, while nine Challenge Tour champions from this year’s Road to Oman will be hoping to bring that successful form to Girona this week.