Michael Hoey is targeting at least a top three finish as he returns to the Northern Ireland Open Challenge in association with Maui Jim Sunglasses, following the disappointment of missing the cut at last year’s inaugural event, writes the European Challenge Tour.
The five-time European Tour winner, a former graduate of the European Challenge Tour, is the official Tournament Ambassador for the event taking place on the pristine grounds of Galgorm Castle this week.
The event made a huge impression last year, attracting over 20,000 people while this year over 32,000 have registered for tickets, which are free of charge for the first time.
Hoey was a main attraction last year butmissed the halfway cut and the 35 year old is hoping that he can make amends this time around.
“It’s great to be back,” said Hoey. “It was a great event last year and I was just disappointed not to make the cut but hopefully I can put that right this year.
"I feel like my game is good at the moment, I played the course last Friday and on Monday and it’s in good shape.
“I think there was a lot of attention on me last year and I put myself under a bit too much pressure. I think I’ll just try and relax a little more this year.
“It would be great to finish maybe top three. This event doesn’t affect my own rank on The European Tour so I may as well just relax and play well.
“Expectation in golf is never a great thing, to think you’re going to do great. It’s that type of game, you just have to relax a bit more and not expect too much, so that’s what I’ll and try do this time.
“I've done some work with my coaches in the last few days and it feels a bit more solid now so hopefully I can hole a few putts and see what happens. It’s a great tournament to be associated with and the business model is very good, they’re putting a lot into it here.”
Oliver Wilson, beaten in a playoff by Daan Huizing last year, is joined by another former Ryder Cup player in Welshman Phillip Price of Walest and a host of former tour winners including Rhys Davies, Maarten Lafaber and Johan Edfors.
Jake Roos, meanwhile, is still chasing a third Challenge Tour victory which would earn him automatic promotion to The European Tour but Rosapenna rookie Ruaidhri McGee is chasing his first win.
The 23-year old Derry man came through the first two stages of the European Tour’s Qualifying School last year, winning in the First Stage before missing out on a card at PGA Catalunya Resort.
But consolation came in the shape of a strong category for the 2014 Challenge Tour season and he came flying out of the blocks with an opening round 66 at the first event of his maiden season, the Challenge de Catalunya.
While a disappointing second round meant he missed the cut, a tied 12th finish at the Turkish Airlines Challenge in May was followed closely by a first top ten finish at the Kärnten Golf Open presented by Mazda.
McGee, however, endured a difficult mid-summer spell but in his last two Challenge Tour starts has secured a top 30 finish at the Azerbaijan Golf Challenge Open and a top 20 at the Vacon Open, so he is feeling good as he arrives at a venue with which he is very familiar.
“I played my first Challenge Tour event last year and I made the cut,” said McGee, who has recently been rooming with former Amateur Champion Garrick Porteous of England. “It was nice to make the weekend and that helped me play a bit better towards the end of the last year.
“It’s a really nice course here, it’s well laid out and they have it in great shape every year. It’s pretty tight so it suits me in that way and the greens are very good. If you can hit it straight off the tee and putt good you’ll do well.
“I've really enjoyed it on the Challenge Tour, it’s been good so far. I played well at the start of the year and then had a bad spell in the middle and now it’s starting to get a bit better again so hopefully it keeps improving.
“I'm not sure what happened in the middle of the year, it was just one of those things, just a bad patch. It’s not fatigue, I'm just taking a bit of time to get used to the travelling week-in, week-out and all that stuff that comes with it.
“I have learned a lot about my game and how to travel and to just be a bit more patient with everything, with delays in play and all the flights and those kinds of things. I think my game is improving, you just have to be solid out here and make sure there are not many things wrong with your game.
“I don’t think I play conservatively, but I don’t seem to make a lot of bogeys. I just need to get more birdies now and I can improve.
“The plan is to go and give it a good run this week. I've played the course over the past three years, because there was a Europro event here in the two years before last year’s Challenge Tour event, and I've always done alright. I just want to try and play well for a few months now and see what happens.
“I like the course and the fan club will be there this week! It’s a bit of a help, having people out there supporting you.”
McGee has already acquired some vital European Tour experience in his short career on the Challenge Tour, having a particularly impressive week at the Lyoness Open powered by Greenfinity in June, where he entered the final day in a share of tenth place before finishing tied 25th.
This year has already been a big learning curve, and McGee hopes he can lead the lines in inspiring young Irish players to come through the professional system.
“It was nice to play at The European Tour events,” he said. “I don’t think there is much difference between the top guys on the Challenge Tour and players on The European Tour so if you play well here you should be able to do well up there. Everybody in the field here can win any given week so it’s pretty impressive.
“There are a lot of good young Irish players now, the amateur team just won the Home Internationals recently, so there’s no shortage of guys coming through. It’s just a case of giving them the support and the invites and they’ll be fine.
“The Irish players needed something and now they’ve got this. There are quite a few Irish guys get invites from this event, and that’s very important. They need all the help they can get on the Challenge Tour. There’s a bit of a gap from the top Irish players on The European Tour to further down the tours so we need something like this to help.
"It’s important that us guys start to push through on the Challenge Tour now and hopefully another few guys will come through after us too."
Twenty-two Irish players will tee it up, including five amateurs.
SHARVIN (AM), Cormac* 07:30
CAMPBELL (AM), Colm 07:40
MCELROY (AM), Dermot* 07:50
MCGEE, Ruaidhri* 07:50
SHAW, Gareth 07:50
KEARNEY, Niall* 08:00
MURPHY, Mark* 09:10
MCALPIN, Matt* 09:10
McCARROLL, Brendan* 09:20
CALDWELL, Jonathan* 09:20
GRANT (AM), Aaron 09:30
HOGAN, Andrew 09:30
HOEY, Michael 13:10
DUNBAR, Alan* 13:20
MOONEY, Damian* 13:30
MCNAMARA, Cian* 14:00
GRANT, Stephen* 14:00
WHITSON, Reeve* 14:10
McGEADY, Michael* 14:10
QUINLIVAN, James 14:20
GALBRAITH (AM), John Ross 14:30
MURRAY, Noel* 14:30