Red-hot Hoey sparkles in Spain
MICHAEL HOEY has been made to feel as much at home at the Castello Masters this week as tournament host and local hero Sergio Garcia, so warm has been the reaction of friends and colleagues on the European Tour to the Ulsterman's recent Dunhill Links victory.
This week is Hoey's first outing since he eclipsed a world-class field, including compatriots Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, at St Andrews and he performed with the same poise, class and confidence during yesterday's opening round at the Club de Campo del Mediterraneo.
Even when misfortune reared its ugly head and Hoey stumbled to a bogey on the tricky par-three 16th and a double bogey on the difficult 17th, the 32-year-old bounced back in style, holing a 40-foot putt from the fringe for his seventh birdie of the day at the last.
The broad smile of satisfaction said it all after Hoey signed for a 67 which left him with a share of third place on four-under par with six others, including Garcia, whose own form yesterday fuelled hope in the 31-year-old's home town that his three-year title drought on the world's top tours may soon end.
The lead was held by England's Ross McGowan, who for the second time in three weeks illuminated an otherwise desperate season with a first-round 64. The highlight of a day in which the 29-year-old made a tricky and strategically challenging course look ludicrously easy was a stunning eagle two on 17.
He reduced this long par four, by far the toughest hole on the course, to a drive and a scintillating 200-yard four-iron into the wind which seemed to home in on the cup almost from the moment it left the club face.
"As soon as I hit it I thought that it felt pretty good," said McGowan, who has just one top-20 finish and missed the cut 14 times in 25 European Tour outings in 2011 as he plunged to 163rd in the Race to Dubai.
Yet McGowan certainly won't be tempted to get too far ahead of himself after yesterday's effort as he led the field at the recent Madrid Masters after opening with a 64 but tumbled into a tie for 42nd that weekend.
In contrast, Hoey has every reason to be cheerful about his form. The world No 99 from Ballymoney man has set his heart on making a return to the US Masters next April on the 10th anniversary of his only appearance at Augusta National as Amateur Champion in 2002.
Judging by the quality of the golf he played yesterday, especially during an eight-hole purple patch around the turn when he landed six scintillating birdies to take the tournament lead, Hoey's dreams of following McIlroy, McDowell and Darren Clarke into the world elite might soon be fulfilled.
He was a tad unlucky to make bogey on 16 -- Hoey was left with little chance of escape at the treacherous 193-yard par three when his tee shot flew to the back corner of the green and he was left a pernicious putt through the fringe.
His problems at 17 arose after he slightly turned over his approach from mid-fairway and his ball bounded through a back bunker into an impossible lie on the bank. Hoey took two to get onto the green and another two to get down.
All was sweetness and light, however, after that unlikely birdie from the fringe at the last.
"It's great to be back out playing again," enthused Hoey, revealing he'd have returned to action at last week's Portugal Masters but for "a minor injury" which prevented him from performing in front of a coterie of family and friends on the Algarve.
Damien McGrane rediscovered his touch with the putter as a two-under-par 69 left the Kells man in a share of 17th.
A bogey at Gareth Maybin's final hole, the ninth, spoilt the taste of his dinner. The Ulsterman signed for a one-over 72, while Dubliner Peter Lawrie wallowed just outside the projected cut mark after his opening 73.
It was a day of two halves for Garcia, who struggled with his putter as he played the back nine in one-over but eclipsed his youthful playing companions, Matteo Manassero and Tom Lewis, by snaffling five fabulous birdies on the way home.
Italian teenager Manassero opened the defence of his title in flying style with birdies on his first four holes.
However, he then took double-bogey at 15 and had to battle hard for his 69.
Lewis (20), England's sensational winner in Portugal last week, shot level par as he grappled with a sore neck, headache and upset stomach -- sounds like flu.
In contrast, Hoey looks as if he's caught the winning bug.
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