Just when Rory McIlroy believed he was finally following up his US Open win, a little-known countryman rose to snatch the Dunhill Links crown from his grasp. Michael Hoey kept Northern Ireland's incredible run going with an inspired finish at the Home of Golf.
Hoey, ranked way down at 241st in the world, birdied three of the last four holes for a 68 to overhaul McIlroy, the world No 3, to collect £520,000, easily the biggest cheque of his career. The 2001 Amateur champion was always been tipped for big things, but it has taken until now for him, aged 32, to fulfil his potential with a 22-under total.
"It's an incredible feeling to win at such a special place," said Hoey, who already had two minor European Tour titles to his name. "I didn't get down on myself and just kept on believing."
McIlroy must wonder what he has to do to add to his three wins. Yesterday, he shot a seven-under 65 containing five birdies and an eagle on the third, when his approach span back into the cup. At the same time, Hoey, the overnight leader by three shots, appeared to be crumbling after bogeys on the third and seventh. But, from the eighth, he showed tremendous verve and nerve, making six birdies in his last 11 holes.
Two successive threes on the 15th and 16th – the latter courtesy of a brilliant second shot to two feet – sent him one ahead and, when he parred the Road Hole and McIlroy failed to par the last, his triumph was all but confirmed. But Hoey finished in style with a birdie three in front of the famous Royal & Ancient clubhouse.
McIlroy was obviously pleased for Hoey, who he has known since he was a young boy, but will bemoan the fact he could not birdie any holes from the 12th onwards. This is the fourth time in the seven events he has played since his eight-shot march at Congressional that he has finished top six – and his third consecutive finish in the top three. A win would have put pressure on Luke Donald in the Order of Merit race.
With Graeme McDowell sharing third place, this was an unprecedented one-two-three for Ulster. However, in a year in which they have won the US Open and Open, perhaps this domination at the Home of Golf shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise. McDowell was happy with his own return to form after an indifferent season. The Scot George Murray, who finished alongside him, was down in 186th in the money list before this event. The £175,000 in prizemoney will ensure he retain his card next year.
Meanwhile, in the pro-am event which runs concurrently, Chris Evans, the Radio 2 DJ, was victorious. His professional partner will now become the subject of a golf question. "Which player won his biggest cheque of the year despite missing the cut?" Step forward Nick Dougherty, who earned £32,000 despite not making the top 60 and ties who survived the chop. Dougherty, a past winner of the main Dunhill Links, has only made one cut all year and, who knows, this success, however irrelevant, may well give him new impetus.