Michael Hoey believes moves will be made to turn this week’s inaugural Northern Ireland Open Challenge Presented by Clannah and XJET and permanent dual-badge event on the European and Challenge Tour circuits.
The five-time European Tour winner will make his first appearance in a regular Challenge Tour event for five years when he competes at Galgorm Castle near Ballymena alongside the likes of Gareth Shaw, Alan Dunbar, Paul Cutler and a host of former European Tour winners. [Field]
Hoey is one of 24 Irishmen, drawn evenly from the North and Republic of Ireland, who will tee up at the Country Antrim venue.
And given the appetite in Northern Ireland for tour golf that was whetted by last year’s sellout Irish Open at Royal Portrush, he knows that moves are afoot to build on this week’s event and make tour golf a regular happening north of the border.
“This tournament is feeding off the Irish Open success, where there were 130,000 spectators last year,” said Hoey, whose most recent victory came in the M2M Russian Open at the end of July.
“I think the government felt like there should have been a follow up to that and wants to try to get a European Tour event in two or three years’ time and move it to co-sanctioned.
“There are going to be some good crowds there and a good atmosphere and hopefully that can lead towards bigger things.”
Speaking at last week’s Johnnie Walker Championship, where he finished 28th, Hoey added: “Pro golf is tough and being able to play these tournaments, you look back at the days on the Challenge Tour and realise that was tough, not playing for a lot of money. We are fortunate.
“I have played Galgorm Castle three times on sponsors day and once before that. It’s a good course, a pretty place, a really good facility.
“It’s not maybe the tighest course in the world so they are grown the rough up to control the scoring because they have had Europro Tour events there the last two years and are trying to make it a little bit tougher. It just depends on the weather. We might get a little bit of wind and it will be a little bit of a tougher test.”
While Hoey would dearly love to add to his tally of three Challenge Tour titles, much of the Ulsterman’s focus this week will be on his ambassadorial role for the €170,000 event.
He said: “I was more than happy to be the face of the tournament, and it’s a real honour and privilege to be able to help out the government and the Challenge Tour. I played on the Challenge Tour for a few years so I know how tough the competition is, and I’ll have to play very well just to contend.
“Some of the winning scores on the Challenge Tour this year and last have been unbelievable, so I’m under no illusions as to how difficult it’s going to be to get in contention, let alone win. There’s a huge difference in the standard from when I was playing five years ago to now.
“But my main aim this week isn’t necessarily to win the tournament – the main goal is to be an ambassador for the tournament. Hopefully everyone likes the venue, and we can have a great week.
“I’ve played the course three times on sponsors’ days this year, so I know it well. It’s a good parkland course and it’s in a beautiful location, so I’m sure the guys will enjoy playing there.
“The success of the Irish Open in Portrush showed what an appetite there is amongst the public for professional golf tournaments in Northern Ireland, so hopefully we can get some good crowds and keep the feel-good factor high.”
Calgorm Castle Golf Club’s touring professional Shaw will hope to build on some noteworthy results this season, with the highlight a top five finish in The Irish Open in June.
The Lurgan man will be joined in County Antrim by his compatriots Paul Cutler and Alan Dunbar, the latter of whom won the 2012 Amateur Championship at Royal Troon.
The duo formed a dynamic pairing in the 2011 Walker Cup, winning both their foursome matches as Great Britain & Ireland defeated their American counterparts 14-12 at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club.
Other notable names in the field include in-form Portuguese José-Filipe Lima, currently second in the Challenge Tour Rankings thanks to a series of eye-catching performances which includes a tied third place finish at last week’s Rolex Trophy; and Frenchman François Calmels, bidding to gain instant promotion to The European Tour with a third victory of the season.
This week’s tournament will mark the first Irish Challenge Tour event since the 2009 Challenge of Ireland while the last time Northern Ireland hosted a Challenge Tour event was in 2003, when Darren Clarke won the Benmore Developments Northern Ireland Masters.