Hoey's 66 keeps the Irish on top

McDowell and McIlroy in hunt as Ulster 'dominates' leaderboard

St Andrews

This Dunhill Links leaderboard is a microcosm of the 2011 season. Northern Ireland in one and two, with the rest wondering what they will need to do to loosen the dread hand of Ulster.

Except the man out in front, with the £500,000-plus prize at his mercy, is not the US Open champion, Rory McIlroy or the Open champion, Darren Clarke, or even Graeme McDowell, the former US Open champion. The last-named does happen to be in second and will be many people's favourite to land his first title of the season. Except as all of his better-known challengers agreed, Michael Hoey is no mug.

The 32-year-old's 66 at Carnoustie hauled him three clear at 18-under, which is a 54-hole record for this tournament. Despite the drizzle, which brought an end to Scotland's heatwave, this was a day of low scoring, with Luke Donald and Simon Dyson equalling the course record here at the Old Course with a pair of 63s. Hoey's performance on the imposing Angus links was just as commendable. He truly is the boy of 66 – this was his third in succession.

"Michael has such a talent that when he puts it all together and gets his head together for a week, he wins and wins well," said McDowell. "I spent a fair amount of time with him growing up and at 20 we all thought he was going to be a world-beater. Why didn't he? Who knows. But none of us are ever surprised when he is up there."

McIlroy concurred. As an 11-year-old, he practised with Hoey, the 2001 Amateur champion, and yesterday explained how much he respected his elder. "Graeme [McDowell] was doing a lot of great things at the time on the American college circuit, but Michael was the top amateur in Ireland," he said. "He is supremely talented and probably it is only the mental side which has held him back."

Hoey does have two European Tour titles to his name, including this year's Madeira Islands Open. But this promises to be the peak of his European Tour life. "One shot a time, but it's great to be in the lead in a really big tournament going into the final round at such a special place as the Old Course," said Hoey, who was in the victorious 2001 Walker Cup team, which also included Donald and McDowell. "Golf is very mental and I've probably just been too hard on myself. I just need to try to relax."

If not Hoey then that remarkable golfing land with a population of just 1.8m has McDowell to root for in today's final grouping. After an indifferent season, it is pleasing to see the popular Portrush man back in contention. McDowell has re-employed Clive Tucker, his long-time coach, and looks and sounds more like his old self.

"It's good to be back up there," said McDowell. "A top five, top 10, would be a good result for me this week. It'll be fun to play with Michael and continue 'Northern Ireland's world domination'. It's unfathomable to think we've won three majors in two seasons. There's nothing special in the water over there and I think the only way to explain it is in the belief system. Padraig's [Harrington] three majors had a subconscious effect on us all and from there it's just gone on and on. Having a Rory McIlroy coming through would have been good enough in itself, but this has been incredible."

McIlroy is an ever-present onthe European Tour's Sunday leaderboard and a 66 here yesterday ensured he will be a threat on 13-under, particularly as St Andrews seems made for the22-year-old. Since the USPGA,the world No 3 has finished third twice and revealed enough of his extraordinary talent to make his winless run since Congressional seem faintly ridiculous.

There is an English challenge. Donald (-13), of course, barely goes a Sunday without challenging for a trophy, while Dyson (-13) has, in recent months, made McIlroy's run seem positively inconsistent. In his last six events the Yorkshireman has won twice and, if his form yesterday was any gauge, he will have a charge at regaining the title he won two years ago. Another roll or two and his birdie putt would have dropped on the last, which would have given him the outright courses record with a 62.

"It was dead centre but six inches short," he said. "I didn't realise it was for a course record; if I had I would have hit it harder. But I can't be disappointed. Rory and Luke aren't the worst names to share the course record with, are they?"

Dyson is finally willing to put himself in this company. At the age of 33, Dyson has rededicated himself to his progression. He has all but given up alcohol and hired a full-time fitness coach. And as the world No 30 he has every right to believe today.

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