Tuesday 16 January 2018

Learning to believe all over again

An overdue win can help Michael Hoey to finally emulate his successful peers, says Dermot Gilleece

O n Sweden's Baltic coast, a continent's finest young golfing talent gathered 10 years ago for the European Men's Amateur Team Championship over the exposed links terrain of Ljunghusens GC. Among them were Luke Donald, who got within a matchplay round of becoming world No 1 last weekend, and Michael Hoey, who at the same time was negotiating a more modest rise to 220th in the rankings.

Others among the class of '01 were Graeme McDowell and Nick Dougherty. And on the far side of the Atlantic, similar promise rested in talents such as Lucas Glover, DJ Trahan and the much-admired Bryce Molder, rated by many as the best amateur in the world at that time. He's now ranked 148th as a professional.

The contrasting fortunes of these players through the ensuing years provides a marvellous insight into the psyche of the tournament golfer.

"It highlights the importance of personality," said Noel Fox, who went from trading strokes with these elite practitioners to becoming a fascinated observer of their development. "It's the perennial golfing conundrum. You play with guys you don't believe have what it takes to push on, then they go out and make one million euro a year. And the guys you view as certain of success often go in the opposite direction.

"Though I've always had immense regard for Michael Hoey, from the time we were abroad representing the GUI on two-man teams, it struck me that he felt uncomfortable in the role of dominant amateur. Terrific off the tee, he was a guy who always seemed to have the ball under control. So it wasn't the game that was holding him back.

"In sharp contrast, the euphoria of success became fuel for the future for Graeme (McDowell). At home in Portrush with his pals, he's simply Graeme. But as a tournament performer in front of the cameras, he becomes G-Mac, the US Open champion. Very few guys can separate the two personas so successfully.

"My belief is that when you work out what golf is for you, you should simply run with it to the exclusion of all other influences. The danger on tour is that you look around and are attracted to what the top players are doing, rather than staying with the talent that got you there in the first place. I think the guys who try to change who they are are more likely to lose their way."

It seems that for Hoey, who captured the Madeira Island Open last weekend, influences were impossible to ignore. He remembers the glow when fellow Northerner Darren Clarke won the Smurfit European Open on the weekend of Ljunghusens. But, curiously, he also remembers every stroke which Clarke struck over a disastrous last nine holes in the Heritage Classic of 2005 when a final round of 76 handed victory to Peter Lonard.

And Hoey remembers a flight home in March 2001 from the Australian Amateur in which he got to the quarter-finals. "They showed highlights of the Madeira Island Open where Des Smyth became the oldest winner on the European Tour. He played a different course (Santa da Serra) to me, but I remember his strong finish (three successive birdies from the 14th).

"Then I went down to Des's club, Laytown and Bettystown, to see Bobby Browne. A few weeks later, I was beaten by Michael McDermott in the final of the West of Ireland."

That summer, Hoey won the British Amateur at Prestwick. And a week after the Europeans, as an amateur invitee, he was tied 11th behind Retief Goosen in the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, where he had a brief meeting with Clarke. Meanwhile, as a student at Clemson University in South Carolina, one of his golfing colleagues was Glover, who went on to capture the 2009 US Open at Bethpage.

"If the level of expectation was high after the Amateur, it really soared at Loch Lomond," he said. "It seemed so easy. I chose to overlook the fact that in playing as an amateur, I was under no real pressure after I made the cut." Through his Prestwick triumph, he also gained life membership of the Golf Club of Georgia where lockers carried the names of champions Sergio Garcia, Matt Kuchar and Ricky Barnes, among others. "I remember thinking 'I've won the Amateur so I'll have to match these players.'"

Against this background, failure to get a European Tour card until the end of 2005 -- as a graduate of the Challenge Tour -- was a body-blow. And after losing his card at the end of 2006, he didn't regain it for another two years. "When it wasn't happening for me, I began to think that it wasn't supposed to be like this. In failing to establish my own identity, I found the whole thing very difficult to handle."

But there was comfort from Irish colleagues. "Pádraig Harrington has always been very generous to me," he said. "Some years ago over dinner, he made a point of telling me that he worked really hard on his game because he didn't think he had that much physical ability. I found it incredible that a player who was No 7 in the world at the time would make such an admission. You have to admire a guy like that."

Sweden in the summer of '01 might have been another world. It was when, late in the afternoon of the opening day, Ireland looked set to claim the outright lead at the end of the first round of qualifying strokeplay, only to be deprived by familiar rivals. A stunning, course-record 63 from Donald had done the damage. Dramatically, he finished with three birdies, recovering from a greenside bunker to sink a 12-footer on the long 18th.

Only slightly less impressive was his reaction afterwards, which spoke volumes for his self-confidence. When his card had been signed, English officials cautioned that I had only a few minutes to talk to him, since the team bus was leaving.

"I won't be going on the bus," the graduate in art theory from Chicago's Northwestern University informed them. "I want to do about 20 minutes on the putting green." There wasn't a word of official dissent: alternative travelling arrangements were promptly made.

By the time we met again, Donald was an established tournament professional. And I recall him remarking on the brutal, weekly grind of life on tour, with mental and physical demands very different from his carefree amateur days.

He found comfort in his art where simply putting canvas on a frame could take three to four hours. All the while, his impeccable golfing technique never changed. As Fox observed: "I remember Luke playing back in the mid-1990s and I don't see any real difference now. At Northwestern, his coach encouraged him to turn a little more so as to gain more power. That would be the only change. He always had fantastic posture and incredible rhythm and if you have a rhythm, you can be pretty sure you're also going to have consistency."

Which is what Hoey seems to be eventually acquiring since victory in the 2009 Portuguese Open gave him security on tour. "Hopefully I can keep improving and learn from Graeme, who has already done more than Darren's done by winning a Major," he said.

On being asked to pinpoint the greatest attribute of Tiger Woods at the peak of his peerless powers, Harrington replied with crushing simplicity: "He believes." If Hoey manages to extract this elusive commodity from his Madeira success, he may yet join the star graduates from the Class of '01.

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