The Long Road to Success: Rico Hoey’s Winding Path to the PGA Tour
So much in Rico Hoey’s life has changed over the last decade, from his stellar play in the junior golf ranks and college at USC, to early success in the pro minor leagues, to wrenching struggles that made him consider quitting the pursuit of trophies because he’d all but given up his dream of reaching the PGA Tour.
One thing didn’t change: the earrings.
Growing up in Rancho Cucamonga, Hoey wanted to be like Tiger Woods, whom he considered to be “different” from other golfers. So, as an elementary school kid, he says he “bluffed” his mom by saying he wanted earrings. She called him on it and took him to the nearest mall for a piercing — “I was the only boy there!” — and Rico picked out round cubic zirconia studs.
For a second-grader, they were pretty flashy. Did he get teased? “Of course,” Hoey now recalls with a laugh. “The kids would ask, ‘Why do you have earrings? What is that supposed to mean?’”
The earrings actually said a lot about Hoey’s personality. He was confident, but not cocky. Outgoing in a way that drew admirers to him. And once he got out on the golf course, following the footsteps of his two older sisters who would eventually play college golf, Rico played with joy and abandon.
“He was always that fun kid who would pick up an adult club and fire it right at the flagstick,” said Ross Fisher, Hoey’s longtime mentor and the general manager of Goose Creek GC in Mira Loma, where the entire Hoey family learned to play.
Rico wore the earrings as he dominated the Southern California junior golf scene, capping his success with a victory in the 2012 Junior World Championship at Torrey Pines, where he beat, among others, future PGA Tour pro Beau Hossler.
He wore them in his second-place finish in the NCAA Tournament during his junior year at USC; for his record-setting victory in the 2016 SCGA Amateur Championship at Barona Creek GC; and when he captured his first significant pro title on PGA Tour Canada in 2017.
And, finally, after subsequent years of struggle, injuries and battling self-doubt, the earrings reflected in the afternoon light on a May Sunday in Tennessee, when Hoey drained a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a closing 65 and achieved his biggest triumph by capturing the Korn Ferry Tour’s 2023 Visit Knoxville Open.
In the minutes after he won, a camera crew filmed a jubilant and crying Hoey calling his girlfriend, Megan Mercado, and parents, who happened to be on the golf course playing. “Just wanted to tell you I love you,” Hoey said as he sniffled away his tears. “Hit ’em straight.”
In the quiet of an interview area later, Hoey said of the emotions that bubbled out of him: “I think just a mix of everything. A lot of hardships and a lot of enjoyment. So, it’s a lot of mixed emotions, but it’s great. I think it’s not a win for myself, it’s a in for everybody.”
A Dream Come True
The victory has been life-changing for the 27-year-old Hoey. He already had five top-10 finishes in the 2023 season before the Knoxville win, and through mid-June he stood at No. 2 on the Korn Ferry Tour points list — all but assured of having PGA Tour status for the first time in 2024.
“It’s a dream come true,” Hoey said. “This is what we all work for. I’m really happy to be out here and to have a chance to get on the PGA Tour. Let’s see what the future has in store, and I’m just going to keep doing my best.”
Hoey’s elation was due in part to the fact that only a couple of years ago he couldn’t fathom experiencing this kind of success again. He played 29 events on the Korn Ferry in the “super season” of 2021, when the pandemic forced the tour to combine two seasons. Hoey didn’t play very well and ran himself ragged, to the point where he hurt his shoulder and missed six straight cuts before benching himself. He thought he might be done with the pros for good and have to look for a more stable job.
“I remember always joking around with my girlfriend,” Hoey recalled, “saying, ‘I’m going to fire up the LinkedIn. And she’s like, you won’t. I’m so glad everyone talked me out of that.”
Fisher, the Goose Creek GM, talked with Hoey about possibly becoming a PGA teaching pro, and to give him a taste of business, Fisher hired Hoey and assigned him to set up the tee markers in the morning before sunrise. It was dark. It was cold. Hoey was pretty miserable.
“But he never said this was stupid or it was beneath him,” Fisher said.
Fisher then scheduled Hoey to work at kids’ clinics and the experience brightened the golfer’s outlook. “Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces, seeing them light up when they hit a shot great — it reminded me of why I love the game,” Hoey said.
Inspired, Hoey went back to practicing, and he and Fisher dismantled his game and reconstructed it. Always among the longest hitters, Hoey honed his short game and putting. Getting a handle on those boosted his confidence enormously. Now, Hoey ranks among the best on the Korn Ferry Tour in nearly every statistic.
At Goose Creek, the junior golfers are well aware of the success of another course regular, Sahith Theegala, the Chino Hills product and 2019 SCGA Amateur champion who is enjoying success on the PGA Tour. Fisher says Theegala used to look to Hoey and call him his “hero.” Now the kids will have a second PGA Tour pro to idolize.
“He’s a genuine person who makes it a lot of fun to be around him,” Fisher said. “His peers, the people around our golf course, everybody is pulling for him. You just want him to be successful.”
Symbolic of Hoey’s path, Fisher said there is a tour pro golf bag with Rico’s name on it displayed in the Goose Creek pro shop. It’s a nice touch. Maybe someday there will be a display case of cubic zirconia earrings, too.