On the face of it, Michael Hoey’s decision to swap his yardage book for a rule book and take up a role as a DP World Tour referee might surprise a few people.
By his own meticulously high standards, the Northern Irishman even impressed himself at times with his play last year. After all, on last season’s Challenge Tour, Hoey remained in the hunt for one of twenty full cards to the Main tour via the Road to Mallorca standings right up until the close of play at the Tour Championship, eventually finishing 39th on the money-list and guaranteeing himself some starts on Europe’s Main tour for 2022.
It was only in October that Hoey proved he could still compete with the best Europe has to offer, sharing 24th place at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. At the Home of Golf, he banked €42,349 in addition to a healthy €43,096 cheque for the team prize. It was Hoey’s largest windfall since collecting €90,000 at the French Open in 2014 and supplemented the €50,321 from his Challenge Tour exploits in 2021.
For those not in the know, it seemed like a decent earning year for Hoey, money in the kitty to keep the dream on the road for at least another year. But then people often underestimate the price golfers pay to pursue that fairway dream, a fickle career that supports a select few and spits so many others out empty-handed.
On the Challenge Tour alone, Hoey might’ve made 50 grand, but he spent 40, having never shied away from his profit and loss balance sheet throughout an endearing career as an up-front interviewee. Sure, he might’ve turned a profitable year, but in recent times they’d been few and far between, and one feast wasn’t nearly enough to distract from life’s bigger picture and the mounting responsibilities at his door.
In fact, the seeds for Hoey’s decision to retire from playing were planted long before this past winter. In 2019, as a member of the European Tour committee, Hoey had enquired about the possibility of employment in the administration side of the game. He was told there was nothing immediately upcoming, but if something was to arise in the future, he would benefit from pre-emptively showing an interest in it.
Later that year, following another bitter Q-School disappointment, a week that promised so much ended at Final Stage with Hoey taking ill before his hopeful six-round slog. He made it through four gruelling rounds, missing the 72-hole cut, but under the cloud of his misfortune, a voice in his head told him that his trip to Tarragona didn’t have to be time wasted. And so, Hoey decided to do what perhaps no golfer has ever done before him – he stayed at Q-School longer than he had to.
“I was gutted missing that cut – getting sick was the worst timing and it’s such a depressing week anyway, you’ve never felt more negativity in your life than down in Tarragona during a cold Q-School – I don’t think anybody wants anyone to play well and it’s just the most negative place in the world,” Hoey says.
“But instead of going home straight away, I said I’m going to show some interest here. I asked the Tour if they’d mind if I sat in the buggy with one of the guys and learn the ropes a bit.
“So they said yes. I sat in with a great guy, Ben, early in the morning for rounds five and six, set up some tee markers, stimp rated a green for the first time in my life (measuring the green speed), went through some rulings, all the things you don’t see as a golfer.
“I did that for two days, flew home, and that was it. Wasn’t sure where it would lead to in the future but it was good.”
The turn of the year 2020 brought renewed hope with Hoey flying to South Africa where he retired injured from his first event of the year at Limpopo before a missed cut at the Cape Town Open. Doubt surfaced once more but whatever uncertainty existed in his mind before March of that year was nothing compared to what followed: COVID-19, Hoey’s world, like so many others, turned upside down by the pandemic.
With playing schedules obliterated across Europe, Hoey had to look elsewhere for work. In an ideal world, he would’ve stayed within the golf industry, but the man from Ballymoney could see the tour was under financial strain, not least after 65 staff were let go and no sign of golf on the horizon.
While the elite of the PGA Tour picked up FedEx Cup points, Hoey packed the clubs away to take up a position with DHL instead. After twenty years chasing the sun on Tour, it was an almighty change of pace, but one Hoey, after brief trepidation, eventually took in his stride.
“A recruitment girl called me up. ‘Do you want to start tonight?’” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I won’t be tough enough for this’, but I managed to stick at it for three months, lifting off a belt all night, really heavy DIY stuff, so it was certainly character building, but I enjoyed it.
“Every day I finished there was a feeling of satisfaction that even the most basic tasks in the world, I did it well.”
So often in life you don’t realise how much you’ll miss something until it’s gone and with a boatload of perspective injected into his veins after his brush with the real world, Hoey returned for another crack at golf’s main stage in 2021, accepting that time was running out to establish himself on the European Tour.
“Even if you get a category on the Main tour, you need to keep your category to get a proper category for the year after so that’s a two year process, there’s no quick route back,” he explains.
“I’d been thinking about it for a while, it was like, ‘you’re 40, it’s going to take two years to get back if you play great at the right time. Then you’re 42, and guys are younger and better and the games a bit more one dimensional’, so I was thinking about it quite a bit.
“But I impressed myself with some of my results last year,” Hoey adds.
The aforementioned Alfred Dunhill Links showing was certainly a highlight, but so too was a seventh place finish at the Irish Challenge at Portmarnock Links and a runner-up result at the B-NL Challenge Trophy. Hoey had seen enough to knuckle down into pre-season mode for another year, but without the backing of sponsors, or the benefit of warm-weather training, his preparation was far from perfect. Then a phone call flipped Hoey’s plans for this year on their head.
“I’d been preparing for the season, going to the gym in January but I got a phone call from the Tour to come in for an interview and it didn’t take me long to say ‘yes, definitely’,” Hoey admits. “I was thinking about the next 15 years, not the next two years!”
Hoey snapped up the role of Tour referee in the knowledge that his talent on the fairway didn’t translate to any obvious qualifications off it. Twenty odd years as a pro and five European Tour wins to show for it is no mean feat, but even with a reputation as tall as Hoey’s, the now 43-year old never would expect a job to be handed to him on reputation alone.
“People have said it to me about teaching or that sort of thing but you can just jump into teaching,” he says. “You pretty much need to own a driving range these days, guys are so independent. Plus, if you don’t have PGA accreditation, it takes years of experience.
“Just because you’ve played at a high level, you can’t just swoop in. It doesn’t work like that.”
Having travelled the world playing golf for the best part of two decades, you’d think nobody would be better qualified to go down the management route, imparting wisdom on fledgling pros and plotting their respective journeys in the game.
Again, not for Hoey.
“I just didn’t want to be booking flights for guys on Friday night with Ryanair, which is a lot of it,” he laughs.
Instead, Hoey maintains his position inside the ropes but as a Tour referee, convinced that there’s a community amongst the gatekeepers of the game’s rule book that has been lost in the locker room at the top end of professional golf.
“I don’t think it’s so much a family now with players and caddies on tour because it’s become selfish and ruthless but in the old days, a lot of the Irish – they still go out to dinner – but it would’ve been way more of a family back in the day. A lot of characters like Philip Walton, Christy O’Connor Jr, they would’ve stuck together, but it’s more of an individual game now,” Hoey says.
“I think the tour operation side of things and referees are very much a family though because they’re trying to help each other with rulings and course set-ups and things like that. They’re a great bunch of people and I can’t wait to start working with them.”
Hoey brings a wealth of experience to his new role but is therefore acutely aware of the challenges that lie in wait – pun intended – having crossed the dividing line from player to referee. The second oldest member on the Challenge Tour last season, by a month, behind Stuart Manley, Hoey will no doubt command plenty of respect but he’ll also hope the majority of players approach and treat officials as he always did, not that he hasn’t experienced some sticky situations in the past.
“You’ve got to be professional, take the emotion out of it and give the facts,” Hoey says of the job at hand.
“I always respected the evidence and knowledge of the referee. We all know this is one of the hardest games in the world and if a player is near the cut-line, and say there’s a borderline embedded ball, that’s a tough decision.
“I actually had one with Phil Mickelson in Singapore. I didn’t get a referee over, I just said ‘Phil, what do you think?’
“It was almost embedded but just in Bermuda grass and he just said, ‘I just think you got screwed with the lie’.
“You’ve got to take it on the chin sometimes!”
Hoey’s been taking the rough and the smooth of this great game of swingers on the chin ever since turning professional in 2002. A brilliant career packed with the highest highs and some pretty dark lows, Hoey feels like he’s lived the life of four different people throughout his stellar stint as a tour pro.
“As you get older, you mature, you have kids,” he explains.
“At the start of 2002 I felt like a young kid myself, just excited about it all, then a few years into it you get beaten up by the lifestyle and the game and you change as you get more responsibility.
“It feels like I’ve been three or four different people throughout those twenty years.”
Twenty years on, Michael Hoey takes on the life of another, but if his career as a referee is half as successful as his time as a player, then the game of golf in Europe is in exceptional hands for many years to come.
From everyone here at Irish Golfer, best of luck with the new gig, Michael, and thanks for all the memories.
Interview by Paul Kelly. Written by John Craven.