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    Alexander: For former USC star Rico Hoey, an impressive start at La Quinta
    • January 19, 2024

    LA QUINTA — Rico Hoey has played these desert courses before. But this time? This was different.

    Hoey, a star at Rancho Cucamonga High and USC before grinding through the Korn Ferry developmental tour, finally broke through last season and received his PGA Tour card after finishing in the top 30 in winnings on the developmental tour. Thursday’s first round at The American Express tournament began his fourth PGA Tour event and his second as a full-fledged tour member.

    He played like he intends on staying a good, long while. He shot a 9-under 63, missing a 62 only when his short putt on 18 slid past the hole at the Nicklaus Tournament course at PGA West.

    That round came before a group of family and friends that should grow over the weekend should Hoey stay in the hunt, in what is about as close to a hometown event as he can get.

    “It was kind of cool having everyone out here, my family, my dad, girlfriend, coaches, everyone,” he said. “Feels like a home event for me. I only live an hour away. I grew up out here, playing junior tournaments out here, so it was fun.”

    Born in the Philippines, Hoey grew up in Rancho Cucamonga and still lists that as his hometown. His home club is Goose Creek Golf Club, a par-71, 6,556-yard layout alongside the Santa Ana River in Mira Loma, now part of Jurupa Valley and just west of Riverside. And in participating in junior golf in Southern California, he said he spent a lot of time on desert courses, including the Nicklaus Tournament layout.

    “I played out here a handful of times, and all the other tracks as well,” he said. “It’s a little bit nicer, I would say. It’s a lot firmer. The conditions are just awesome. They keep it well-kept throughout the year, but it was just really fun being out here and playing how fast and firm it was today.”

    Some of those tournaments were in the summertime, which meant early tee times to avoid the desert’s triple-digit temperatures. “Pace of play,” he said, “was awesome.”

    That was then. This is now, and starting on 10 Thursday, Hoey had four birdies before the turn, then birdied 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7 to put himself in a tie with Christiaan Bezuidenhout for second place behind the day’s leaders, Zach Johnson and Alex Noren, both of whom shot 10-under at La Quinta Country Club.

    Hoey understands the drill in this tournament, as much of its heritage as the spirit of Bob Hope, for whom the event was originally named: Go low, every day, if you want to have any chance at all.

    He also understands one of the other quirks of this event. He knows that if the wind turbines just outside of Palm Springs are whirring, the elements may be a challenge. If they’re still, the birdie harvest is on. On Thursday, they were lazily moving.

    “Oh, yeah, I’ve taken that 10 Freeway drive many a time, and I totally get what you mean,” he said. “Once you see those (spinning), it’s blowing. It’s going to be a pretty windy day. But you know, this time of year, you can’t beat it. It’s so nice out here.”

    Just getting here and playing in this tournament is a sign of success. The path has been difficult, as it should be.

    Hoey was a four-time All-American at USC and a first-teamer as a senior in 2017. He won the Callaway Junior World Championship in 2012 at Torrey Pines, the CIF Southern Section individual title in 2013 and the SCGA Amateur Championship in 2016.

    But after he turned pro, victories were tough to come by. Injuries set him back, and for a time he stepped away, working at Goose Creek for a while, before going back to Q-School and qualifying for the Korn Ferry Tour in 2022.

    The next year was a breakthrough. Hoey won the Visit Knoxville Open in May, sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win it, his first win on the Korn Ferry tour and just his second since turning pro, having won a PGA Canadian tour event in 2017. This one punched his ticket to the tour.

    He had played three PGA Tour events before this, missing the cut at the Sony Hawaii Open in 2020 and again this year, and tying for 20th at the Barracuda Championship in Truckee in July.

    “It’s pretty amazing” to be a full-fledged member of the tour, he said. “It’s a dream come true, for sure. I mean, I get to be out here playing the best courses in the world (against) the best players in the world. So, I mean, I don’t want to take anything for granted. I want to be out here for a long time, and I’m just going to keep working hard and hopefully one day I can be one of those great players.”

    Does it mean more when you’ve struggled?

    “Yeah, but I think everyone has their own path, right?” he said. “I have to look at it as, everyone has the same opportunities. It’s just a matter of whoever can take it. I’ve failed multiple times, but I’ve also been out here, and I’ve earned my way out here.

    “Everyone out here has hit thousands of thousands of golf balls, and putted until dark. But I think it’s just who you surround yourself with (to deal with the setbacks). And I’m very lucky to surround myself with great friends. My coach, Ross Fisher from Goose Creek, girlfriend Megan (Mercado). I mean, they’ve been by my side since, you know, the low point in my life. So, like I said, I’m very fortunate to be out here, and I’m just really happy to have a tee time and just keep shining, right?”

    If he keeps up this pace this week, he’s liable to be buying a round for the clubhouse at Goose Creek at some point.

    “Yeah, this will be a story to tell one day for sure,” he said.

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    ​ Orange County Register