ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The Dunhill Links Championship leaderboard looked more like the Northern Irish Open after the conclusion of the third round.
Michael Hoey was top of the bill at 18 under par after a 66 at Carnoustie. He’ll play in the final group with fellow countryman Graeme McDowell, who is three shots behind after a 67 at St. Andrews. Rory McIlroy is at 13 under par after a 66 over the Old Course on a day with hardly a breath of wind that rendered the grand old lady of Fife toothless. She coughed up two 63s, by Luke Donald and Simon Dyson, which equaled McIlroy’s course record set at the 2010 British Open, and a 64 from Padraig Harrington, which propelled him into contention at 13 under par.
Donald and Dyson are 13 under, Louis Oosthuizen is 14 under, Masters champion Charl Schwartzel 12 under, Lee Westwood 11 under, and there was even smile from Colin Montgomerie, who bogeyed the 17th but then had to pose on the Swilken Bridge for the obligatory photo with his amateur partner Michael Douglas. Monty shot a 66 to be 10 under par and at the back of the stellar pack chasing Hoey.
“So you want to talk about Northern Ireland’s continued domination of world golf,” McDowell said, chuckling after his round. “It’s unfathomable what’s been happening with three majors champions in me, Rory and Darren. When you’ve got Rory coming out of your country that’s a pretty good start and Darren’s always had the talent.”
But just what the heck are they drinking up there in Ulster? Do they have some kind of secret elixir that is giving their golfers superpowers? If they do, they’re not telling.
“There’s nothing special in the water up there in Northern Ireland,” McDowell said.
Whatever it is they should distil it, bottle it and sell it.
McDowell and Hoey played in amateur teams together for Ulster and Ireland and used to hang out as teenagers at Royal Portrush. Hoey, the 2001 British Amateur Champion, won the Madeira Islands Open earlier this year, but he was supposed to challenging for major trophies along with McDowell and McIlroy after playing alongside McDowell and Donald in the 2001 Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team that beat the United States at Sea Island, Ga. Now at age 32 Hoey has his chance to graduate to the big leagues at the home of golf, but his mental frailties in the spotlight are well-known. Hoey is honest enough to admit it himself.
“Just been really hard on myself,” Hoey said. “Trying to relax is obviously what I need to do. Golf is very mental.”
McDowell said that Hoey will be tough to catch on Sunday at St Andrews.
“He’s ice cold,” McDowell said. “He doesn’t get up and doesn’t get down. You always thought at 18 that he was going to be a world beater but he never really kicked on.”
Talking up Hoey was typical of the always-classy McDowell, but don’t think for one second he’s ready to wave his playing partner through to the finishing line. Especially since he’s been staying away from one of his favorite pubs this week.
“I’ve always felt this is a tournament I can win,” said McDowell, who lost a playoff here to Stephen Gallacher in 2004. “I’ve always said keeping out of the Jigger Inn is birdie number one.”
After the hangover he has endured since his U.S. Open victory last year, McDowell was delighted to be back on a leaderboard among the game’s elite.
“It’s great to be going out on a golf course like St. Andrews with a chance to win,” he said.
McIlroy also claimed to have no idea why Northern Ireland’s golfers have the Midas touch at the moment.
“I don’t know if we are feeding off on another or whatever it is,” McIlroy said. “I don’t think it’s going to last forever. I hope it does. It’s great to see Michael up there and great to see G-Mac on a bit of form as well.”
McIlroy has been carrying around a secret weapon in attempt to keep his swing sharp. Not so much a comfort blanket as a comfort club. His coach Michael Bannon has given him a cut-down wedge that McIlroy said he swings in front of mirrors in hotels.
“It just gives me a chance to swing inside so at least I’m swinging a club and developing some sort of feeling if I’m not hitting balls,” McIlroy said. “I’ve had it for the last couple of years. I’ve been carrying it around with me. It’s not like I go to the toilet and bring the club with me.”
McIlroy has to make up five shots on Hoey but believes he still has a chance.
“I definitely feel there’s a low score out there,” he said. “You can shoot 62 or 63.”
But if the Northern Irish are planning yet another celebration at a seemingly never-ending party, then they had better beware Dyson, who was in a buoyant mood after that course-record-equaling 63. The Englishman has won twice this season and when it seemed all of Ireland gathered at the Irish Open in July to welcome their major heroes Clarke, McIlroy and McDowell and to cheer on a home winner, guess who the party pooper was?