Preparations are complete and the waiting is over. Gareth Shaw and 24 other Irish competitors will tee it up in one the strongest fields of the season in the €170,000 Northern Ireland Open Challenge, presented by Clannah and Xjet, at Galgorm Castle Golf Club tomorrow.
A truly international field has assembled at the Ballymena venue for this week’s showpiece with a number of local players hoping to state their case for the €27,200 top prize.
The NI Open is fronted Michael Hoey, the five-time European Tour winner, who is also this week’s tournament ambassador. Although Hoey, 34, hasn’t competed in a Challenge Tour event for more than five years, he knows he faces stiff competition, not least from any number of his compatriots.
“Some of the winning scores on the Challenge Tour this year and last have been unbelievable, so I’m under no illusions how difficult it’s going to be to get into contention, let alone win,” said the recent M2M Russian Open winner. “There is a huge difference in the standard from when I was playing (Challenge Tour) five years ago to now.”
Ahead of the event a special note came in from Rory McIlroy. The two-time major winner tweeted to his 1.7million followers and said: “All the best for everyone involved with the Northern Ireland Open @GalgormCastle in a couple of weeks @Challenge_Tour http://www.niopen.co.uk.”
One of those hoping to give Hoey a run for his money will be Shaw, the Galgorm Castle Touring Professional with a certain local knowledge.
“I’m looking forward to competing at home and on a course I am familiar with. Hopefully the home support will feed in with family, friends and my coaches around this week. My game is very solid and it’s a great opportunity,” said Shaw, who only lives 20 minutes away in Castledawson.
Earlier in the week Shaw played a few holes with his coaches, Johnny Foster and Fergie Wallace, and got a final look at the parkland layout in yesterday’s pro-am. “My preparations are the same as any week really. The advantage is I know the course well so I don’t need to do my homework as much.”
The 27-year-old has reached this point of the season in a fortunate position where he has three realistic avenues to secure his main European Tour card for next season - the ultimate goal for all Challenge Tour players competing this week.
“Luckily I am in a good position. I have three goes at it and if I play well enough I would be disappointed if I don’t get my European Tour card through one of three ways, the Challenge Tour, the main tour or Tour School. A lot of guys have only one option left and that’s Tour School and to be honest that’s just a lottery,” explained Shaw, who has won over €130,000 this season from both the European and Challenge Tour.
More than 30,000 spectators are expected at Galgorm over the week and tickets can still be purchased at the gate.
There are 13 players competing from Northern Ireland and 12 from the Republic of Ireland with three Irish amateurs, Reeve Whitson (Mourne), Chris Carroll (Shandon) and Ballymena’s Dermot McElroy, who won the 2013 North of Ireland Strokeplay title to book his place.
Other Irish notables include Alan Dunbar, the 2012 Amateur champion at Royal Troon who turned professional after the US Masters in April. He will no doubt catch up with Paul Cutler, his winning Walker Cup teammate from Royal Aberdeen in 2011.
Following on from the phenomenal success of last year’s Irish Open at Royal Portrush, the NI Open continues to feed the northern appetite for tournament golf. Expectant crowds will get a chance to see big names such as 2008 Ryder Cup player Oliver Wilson in action.
Wilson’s compatriot Nick Dougherty may be another who is searching for top form once again but as Sam Torrance once said “form is temporary, class is permanent” and the 2007 Dunhill Links champion will hope get back in the groove in Ballymena, as will Kenneth Ferrie, the 2005 European Open winner at The-K Club.
The NI Open will also host top European players such as Portugal’s José-Felipe Lima, who is second on the Challenge Tour standings (€91,842). Lima has been so consistent all season - with no less than eight top 10 finishes, including tied third at last week’s Rolex Trophy - he has already secured his European Tour card for next season.
Lima is closely pursued by Italy’s Andrea Pavan and the French duo of Victor Riu and François Calmels. Should Calmels triumph at Galgorm he would gain automatic promotion to the main tour with three wins this season. Australia’s Daniel Gaunt, who is familiar with Galgorm having finished runner-up in a previous EuroPro event, is another form horse to watch.
Note: Tickets for the Northern Ireland Open Challenge are still on sale and can be purchased from Galgorm Castle Golf Club (028 2564 6161) or at the entrance on the day. Full details online at www.niopen.co.uk