Northern lights shine brightest
Hoey's Moscow victory gives Ulstermen the edge in European Tour 'win' column
MICHAEL HOEY propelled Rory McIlroy and fellow Northern Ireland professionals across a remarkable threshold with his victory in Moscow.
For the first time in the 41-year history of the European Tour, golfers from the North now have more official tournament wins than their counterparts on the rest of this island.
Hoey's success at the M2M Russian Open is the 49th by Northern Ireland golfers since the Tour's formation in 1972, one more than the 48 achieved by players from the Republic.
It's a measure of a recent seismic shift in the balance of power that McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and, of course, Hoey have won 18 of 21 tournament titles picked up by Irish golfers since Padraig Harrington's spectacular winning streak ended at the 2008 US PGA.
The three exceptions were Shane Lowry's sensational 2009 Irish Open success as an amateur, his first win as a pro at last October's Portugal Masters and Simon Thornton's maiden victory at last month's St Omer Open.
Thornton is Yorkshire-born but since marrying and settling in Newcastle, Co Down, he has taken Irish citizenship. Given he resides in the North, perhaps the figures should read 50-47 in favour of the Six Counties.
Of course, golf is an all-island sport. So Ireland, as a whole, should be credited with 97 tournament wins.
However, during the Troubles, the European Tour wisely afforded golfers from the Six Counties the opportunity to play under a separate flag.
This has now become established practice on the world's professional Tours, even if golf in all four of Ireland's provinces is still collectively administered by the GUI, the ILGU and PGA Irish Region.
GUI membership figures emphasise how much the North has been punching above its weight on the pro circuit. Of the 420 clubs registered with the GUI, 330 are in the Republic and 90 are in the Six Counties.
Meanwhile, just 30,000 of 140,000 fully subscribed members of the GUI (these figures do not include juniors) pay their affiliation fee in sterling.
According to GUI national coach Neil Manchip, Northern Ireland is blessed with "a golden generation" of golfers.
No question, talented individuals like Clarke, whose 14 Tour titles are matched only by Harrington, nine-time winner McDowell and, arguably, the most gifted Irish golfer of all time, McIlroy, who like Hoey has prevailed five times on the European circuit, have driven Ulster golf to the fore.
When he first arrived from his native Scotland more than a decade ago to work as an assistant professional at Royal Co Down, Manchip was most impressed by the amount of competitive inter-club golf played at all ages and handicap levels.
"Yet this is something which happens right across the island of Ireland," says the coach, who believes golf probably gives many kids in Ulster a competitive sporting outlet which is provided by Gaelic games in other communities across the island.
In the context of last Sunday's action-packed All-Ireland quarter-finals, Manchip cited hurling as an example of a sport of mass appeal to young players who would have many of the attributes required for golf.
Though elite Northern Irish amateurs, like 2011 Walker Cup stars Alan Dunbar and Paul Cutler, appeared to have the upper hand on the domestic circuit in recent years, Manchip's contention that "generally, these things are cyclical" is supported by the current crop of exciting young golfers from the 26 Counties.
For example, seven of the 11-man Irish team named last Friday for the upcoming men's Home Internationals at Ganton hail from Munster and Leinster, while just two Ulster players figure among the 11 chosen for the Boys Home Internationals.
However, six of the eight players who have won five or more official events on the European Tour since its inception hail from the North. The two exceptions are Harrington (14) and Des Smyth (8) but, as a general rule, they seem to breed their professionals a little tougher in the Six Counties.
IRELAND'S TOP 12 ON
THE EUROPEAN TOUR
14 wins – Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington.
9 – Graeme McDowell.
8 – Des Smyth.
7 – Ronan Rafferty.
5 – David Feherty, Rory McIlroy, Michael Hoey.
4 – Eddie Polland, Christy O'Connor Jnr, Eamonn Darcy, Paul McGinley.