ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The Northern Ireland Open, also known as the Dunhill Links Championship, was, of course, won by an Ulsterman — just not the Ulsterman everyone thought it would be.
The unheralded Michael Hoey finished at 22 under par and held off his two superstar pals, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, to win the biggest tournament of his career and a check for almost $800,000. McIlroy was runner-up on 20 under par and McDowell tied for third at 18 under par with Scotland’s George Murray.
Hoey looked shell shocked after his four-under-par 68. “It hasn’t sunk in,” he said, shaking his head when told he qualified for the WGC-HSBC Champions event in Shanghai next month and the 2012 WGC Bridgestone Invitational. “Now I’ll maybe be traveling with them more on tour. It’s a dream come true.”
“Graeme was great to play with,” he said. “He’s a fighter and wanted to win, but he said ‘knock it in’ a few times to me on the greens.” Class, as ever, from McDowell.
On the eve of the final round, McIlroy and McDowell spoke about Hoey’s sometimes suspect nerves under pressure. It’s wasn’t mind games — even Hoey mentioned it and said there were times during the final round when he had to fight off his inner demons.
“I thought, ‘You’re playing with major champions,’ and I was struggling with my game and rhythm,” he admitted. “I missed a four-footer on the 12th and thought, ‘You’re giving it away.’ There have been times when I’ve thought I am unbelievably good and times when I’ve thought I don’t have the consistency. But now I do. Gee, I just shot 22 under par at the Dunhill Links.”
When it looked like he would be overtaken on the back nine, Hoey, who started the week as World No. 271, held steady. In fact, he did better than that. He outplayed two of the world’s greatest ball strikers and hit, he said, some of the best shots of his career to birdie the 15th, 16th and 18th, and par the 17th, the infamous Road Hole.
“I was shaking over that last putt,” he said, even though he had the luxury of two putts to win. He only needed one.
Hoey’s more illustrious rivals paid tribute to the new champion and took consolation in Northern Ireland’s continuing dominance.
“It’s always disappointing when you are in the mix and don’t get the job done,” McDowell said after his three-under-par 69. “But it’s dream stuff for Northern Ireland. This course could be in Northern Ireland — it has that feel to it. We’re reasonably close to home here. Playing golf in Scotland is the nearest thing to a Northern Ireland Open. It’s great stuff from the guys. I’m happy for Michael. He showed his class today. People who don’t know him will be surprised. Those that do won’t be so shocked. With the three names that were up there, mine included, the bookies wouldn’t have had him winning. But Rory and I both know how good he is.”
McIlroy, too, was understandably disappointed but also full of praise for Hoey. “I had it going early on and gave myself a great chance. I’m sure it will be a long flight to Korea Monday morning thinking about it. It’s great to see Michael win and to see all of us boys up there. Just obviously disappointed it wasn’t me lifting the trophy.”
With no wind and a deluge that drenched St. Andrews all Saturday night and Sunday morning, all the bounce had been soaked out of the Old Course. Her defenses were down and McIlroy ripped up the front nine in just 30 swipes. But having made up five shots on Hoey, the U.S. Open champion only managed one birdie coming in.
McIlroy’s approach to the 18th seemed perfect to set up a birdie to put pressure on Hoey in the group behind, but then McIlroy watched in horror as his ball zipped back and trickled down into the Valley of Sin. McIlroy dropped to his haunches. Game over. And he knew it.
He closed with a seven-under-par 65.
With 20 amateurs still in the field, the final round pace of play was funereal. Five and a half hours for a round of golf must have had Old Tom Morris spinning in his grave.
Maybe it’s time the amateurs left the pros to it on Sunday. As for the American challenge, World No. 5 Dustin Johnson missed the cut and took solace in a St. Andrews pub. (He played the weekend with his brother Austin; they finished seventh in the pro-am team championship.) John Daly briefly revived memories of his 1995 British Open victory with a 67 at St. Andrews in the second round before his inexorable slide down the leaderboard. He finished tied for 39th at nine under par.
And so the Northern Irish party rumbles on — hosted by McDowell then McIlroy then Darren Clarke and now Hoey. Another Guinness, anyone?