Brookline’s real legend is this man (No, not Justin Leonard. The other one)

BROOKLINE, Mass. — It’s a little before 5 in the afternoon when a local caddy (who requests to remain nameless) surveys the 17th hole at The Country Club, a course dating back to 1893, ancient by American golf standards. He starts playing the hits. “See that?” He points over a fence, out through some trees. It’s Francis Ouimet’s house. The patron saint of Brookline grew up at 246 Clyde Street. He caddy at the club and still lived at home when, in 1913, at age 20, he qualified for the US Open, spit in convention’s eye, and became the most famously far-fetched winner in tournament history by beating pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the playoff. “See over there,” the caddy says, pointing to a spot on the green. Justin Leonard stood there, eyeing that putt, the one that rolled and rolled and slammed into the cup, detonating one of the all-time parties in golf history. Americans in heinous shirts went streaking across the green, leaping and awkwardly fist pumping, celebrating the putt of all putts and a win in the 1999 Ryder Cup.

Those are the stories in the annals. Pictures in the clubhouse. As the 2022 US Open returns to The Country Club this week, you’ll hear all about them.

But there’s another story from Brookline’s 17th. The caddy leans in to tell this one, as if making sure a lurking nun doesn’t overhear. None of this is secret anymore — hell, two decades have passed — but in Boston, old habits die hard, and when one guy from the neighborhood tells a story about another guy from the neighborhood, it’s best not to blab. Irish-Catholic discretion.

The caddy recounts Leonard’s famous putt once again. These images are burned in time. The ball rams into the jar and Leonard takes off running. Arms in the air, wild eyes. He runs to his left, unsure where to go, what to do. He darts off the side of the green as US team members give chase. He stops and turns, howling into the air. Pandemonium.

There, right then, Leonard is greeted by his first embrace.

“Do you remember the guy in the red shirt?” the caddy asks.

John Hoey’s phone kept ringing. Hardly awake, cracking open his hungover eyes, he’d answer the call, tell his brother his no, and hang up. John had been at The Country Club the previous day, drinking drinks, having himself a time. Now he was paying for it. The day before he had not gone totally as planned, mainly because, as he recounts all this time later, “The Americans got their asses kicked.”

But now it was a new day, Sept. 26, 1999, the Sunday morning of the 33rd Ryder Cup, and John’s brother had a plan.

Why? Because like every great hustler in history, Mike Hoey always had a plan. That’s what it takes to outfox everyone.

The phone rang again.

“I’m not going!” John yelled.

And again.

“Mike! I’m not going!”

Mike wasn’t taking no for an answer. So John and his wife his got up and got going. Mike told them to meet him at Joey McIntyre’s house. yes, that Joey McIntyre. The youngest member of New Kids on the Block. The Hoey family, a brood of six, and the McIntyres, all nine of them, had grown up together in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. Joey now owned a huge house about a mile from TCC, one of those old historical ones that cars slow as they drive by. Joey wasn’t there, but the house was open for friends to use during Ryder Cup week. Working through his hangover, John arrived there to find his brother and a few other friends, Billy “Wolfie” Connolly and Eddie O’Brien, whose family owns O’Brien’s funeral home in Southie.

That’s when Mike Hoey handed out the tickets. Well, sort of. None of them were real. Mike had them made by a friend who owned a printing press in Southie. He had one extra credential made special for himself. In addition to the ticket he’d wear in a lanyard around his neck, Mike created a pass featuring the Ryder Cup logo and “CLERGY” written in large lettering along the bottom.

His plan? Sneak inside the ropes and pose as the official chaplain for the United States team.

Mike tied the pass onto a belt loop and paired it with a Red Sox hat, of course.

That, and a red golf shirt.

Mike and John Hoey, along with their four siblings, spent their formative years in the Marsh Hill section of Jamaica Plain, about a half-hour walk to The Country Club. The boys caddy there. They hated golf, weren’t particularly fond of the upper-crust membership, either, but the money was good.

Mike excelled as an athlete and was a Golden Gloves boxer growing up. “A tough, tough kid,” says his brother. His road went a little sideways, though. Drug use. A prison stint. Hard stuff, dark times. But Mike came out the other side. He committed to AA, helped many others along the way, as chronicled wonderfully here by Jim McCabe.

Going straight changed Mike’s life for the better, but also left him with a void. He needed those adrenaline rushes. So he leaned into the kind of stunt that got his endorphins going more than anything else — sneaking into sporting events as one of the all-time gatecrashers in Boston history. He was a rascal, in a good way. That’s how he landed in the Celtics locker room after they won a game over the Lakers in the 1985 Finals. …

And how he ended up on the field after the Red Sox lost Game 7 of the 1986 World Series …

And inside the ropes at the 1988 US Open at Brookline, posing as a photographer ….

And on the field at Alltel Stadium for Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005, wearing a fake headset …

And on the clubhouse balcony at the K Club in County Kildare, Ireland, spraying champagne and celebrating alongside the European team after their win in the 2006 Ryder Cup.

“As he got sober, this became his thing,” John says. “It was like a hobby — outwitting people and getting into these situations. If you act like you belong, no one’s gonna say anything. He had balls like you wouldn’t believe. It would take me an hour to tell you all the different things he did.”

Out in the real world, Mike worked as a bricklayer after getting clean. Later, he took a job at Boston Edison, climbing poles as a lineman.

Everything else revolved around sports.

Like other men of their age, as they got older, John and Mike gravitated toward golf. They began playing, got sucked in. Of course, they wanted to play at Brookline, but one doesn’t simply book tee times at one of the most exclusive clubs in the country. So they returned to caddie occasionally, collecting some pocket money and Monday rounds.

“We knew everyone up there,” John says. “Well, except for the members.”

When ’99 rolled around, there was no chance Mike was going to miss a chance to see the Ryder Cup on his home course.

There was also no chance of him paying to do so.

So the tickets were printed.

And the plan was hatched.

The key to any successful ruse is two-fold. You need the confidence of a cat burglar and the nerve of a magician. You need to manipulate reality while looking at your mark in the eye. Handing over a fake ticket? Walking past a security guard? Dipping under the ropes or walking onto the field? Most of us would feel that molten hot burning in our chest. Most of us would hesitate for a half-pause. Dead giveaways. The gig would be up before it began.

Mike Hoey? All he felt was the thrill. He had those guts. Maybe sometimes more guts than sense, but that’s what it takes to live a life like his.

Arriving at The Country Club on that Sunday morning in September 1999, Mike’s whole group of phony ticket-holders made it through the gates with no problem. The others would watch among their fellow spectators, while Mike strolled around like he owned the place. He’d already told John and everyone else that he had a funny feeling something incredible was going to happen. The scoreboard said the United States trailed 10-6 entering the final day and the word around the course was it had no chance. Common sense said it was over. Sunday would be a European coronation.

But Mike believed.

Like any good clergyman.

Mike cruised around The Country Club, cheering on an American comeback. It wasn’t just there. he was there, shoulder-to-shoulder with the players’ wives, within an arm’s reach of the US vice captains, and a few paces off of each green. At one point, he swiped a green cushion distributed to those VIPs associated with the US team. It made him look all the more official.

The day wore on. The European advantage dwindled. Late afternoon, throngs of fans packed into the easternmost edge of the course. That’s where Leonard’s match versus José María Olazábal arrived at its apex. The two-tiered 17th green sits pressed up close to the fence line running along Clyde Street. Stand there today and you can’t imagine how tightly everyone must’ve been packed in. There mustn’t have been air to breath, let alone room to move.

And Mike Hoey had the best seat in the house.

After Leonard’s 45-foot putt rammed home, Mike leapt into the air next to the green, jumping up and down. Leonard’s celebratory dash, by chance, went right in his direction. So Mike joined right in, bear hugging Leonard. He was in the middle of the delirium, high-fiving members of the US team and their wives as NBC cameras broadcast his face from him all over the world.

The stuff of legends.

Mike was pictured in newspapers across the country. No one knew who he was. Look through photo archives now and it’s difficult to find images without him included. When a book on the ’99 Ryder Cup was published a few months after the Americans’ victory, Mike was right smack in the middle of the cover.

A year later, sometime in 2000, Leonard was pulled aside while playing in a tournament. In the time since making the putt, he’d been asked every imaginable question about that day and what happened at Brookline. This time, though, he was asked if he remembered the guy in the red shirt who hugged him on No. 17. Leonard was caught off-guard. He responded something like, “Yeah, wasn’t he a priest or something?”

The stranger laughed a knowing laugh and responded, “Oh, he’s no man of the cloth.”

And that’s how Justin Leonard learned that, at the greatest moment of his golfing life, he was hugged by a bricklayer.

“I can’t imagine the nerves on that guy,” Leonard says today. “The hug was the first time I noticed him, but if you go back and look at all the video from that day, he’s all over the place, right in the middle of everything. He was right behind Ben Crenshaw when he was interviewed on 18 green by Roger Maltbie.”

Leonard more for years who the interloper was. All he knew was that the guy was supposedly some kind of professional gatecrasher. He recounted the story during a 2018 episode of “Feherty” on Golf Channel, adding an air of mystery to the tale. Show producers eventually tracked Mike down and learned of his many exploits. They contacted him and invited him to the show.

Mike declined.

Not his style.

So he lived on in history as that guy in the red shirt.

Hearing about Mike Hoey now, 23 years later, Leonard thinks on it and says: “To me, he’s become part of the story. He’s part of what happened. The quirkiness of The Country Club, all the weird things, and the incredible history Ryder Cup. He just fits for some reason.”

No ill-will.

“You know,” Leonard says, “he’s oddly appropriate.”

Michael J. Hoey will not be in attendance at Brookline for this week’s US Open. Sure-as-hell would if he could, but his heart gave out on March 7, 2020. Mike died at age 64; he was laid to rest a few days later on St. Patrick’s Day. John says his brother his packed more into those 64 years than any of us could ever hope to.

“For someone they liked to call ‘The Imposter,’ my brother was the real deal, man,” John says.

And that’s the point. In a world with narrowing lines of acceptable mischief, there’s something to be said for some good old-fashioned bullshittery. Mike didn’t do what he did to get on TV or pump himself up. He did it for the moment. He did it to be in the action. For the experience. And, of course, to get one over on everyone. That’s why, with all due respect to Mr. Leonard and Monsieur Ouimet, they’ve got nothing on the real legend of Brookline.

Remember that this weekend. And when whatever weird twist comes over the next few days, know that’s Mike Hoey, winking at us all.

(Top photo: Rusty Jarrett / Allsport via Getty)


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