European Tour champions and 2001 Walker Cup teammates Michael Hoey and Graeme McDowell have both backed the Challenge of Ireland ahead of the fifth edition of the event, which for the first time will be played at Moyvalley Hotel & Golf Resort in Kildare, Ireland, from June 11-14.
Ryder Cup player McDowell has four European Tour titles to his name whilst three-time Challenge Tour champion Hoey, who won the Amateur Championship in 2001, made his long-awaited breakthrough at the Estoril Open de Portugal at the start of the month, breaking Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño’s unbeaten play-off record to take the €208,330 first prize.
Both men believe the €150,000 Challenge of Ireland presented by Moyvalley will now give Irish golf the perfect opportunity to enhance its already lofty reputation over a course designed by European Tour champion Darren Clarke, who has been a staunch supporter of the Challenge Tour in the past.
McDowell said: “I’ve always been more than forthcoming in my support for the Challenge Tour, as I’m a big believer in the important role it plays in the development of the main Tour. There is no doubt that the Challenge Tour provides the ideal platform for aspiring young professionals to hone their skills and gain the necessary experience to graduate to the upper echelons of world golf, so I’m delighted to lend my support to this event.
“From a personal point of view, I recognise the importance of Ireland continuing to host an event on the Challenge Tour Schedule, as it provides young Irish players with the opportunity to compete not only in their own event at home, but also the chance to seek invitations to play in other Challenge Tour events across the world. Through these playing opportunities, young up-and-coming players can gain invaluable experience and attempt to gain full status on the Challenge Tour for the following season, whilst more seasoned players can use them as stepping stones in their quest to progress onto the main Tour.
“In recent years, we have seen some great players come through the Challenge Tour and there have been a number of spectacular European Tour wins by recent Challenge Tour graduates. Two of my good friends from Northern Ireland, Michael Hoey and Gareth Maybin, are a great example of how successful the Challenge Tour has now become and, more importantly, the crucial role it plays in the development of the next generation of Irish stars on Tour.
“Michael, who was my Walker Cup partner in 2001, has spent the last few years putting in the hard yards and gaining experience on the Challenge Tour. I was absolutely delighted to see him make his big breakthrough by winning the Estoril Open de Portugal on The European Tour. He has always been a fantastic player, and is a great example for other young players to keep working hard and have the belief that the rewards will come.”
Hoey’s victory was just reward for the seasons he spent honing his technique on the Challenge Tour and, like McDowell, the 30 year old believes events such as the Challenge of Ireland give emerging Irish talent like Michael McGeady and Gareth Shaw the perfect opportunity to build a winning mentality, before progressing onto The European Tour.
He said: “As an Irishman, the Challenge of Ireland was always the first event I looked for when the schedule was published, and it was probably the one I wanted to win the most. Unfortunately I didn’t manage it – in fact, I never seemed to play that well! Maybe I put too much pressure on myself, because I was so desperate to play well. But with so much Irish talent in the field this year, hopefully we can finally get a home winner. I’ve heard great things about the course at Moyvalley, so they should be in for a really good week.
“One of the best things about the tournament is that it gives some of the younger Irish guys a great platform to perform on. Two years ago Gareth Maybin played under a sponsor’s invitation and did very well, and then last year Gareth Shaw played brilliantly to finish in the top five. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do even better in his second year as a professional, and hopefully the likes of Colm Moriarty and Michael McGeady can finish in the top 20 of the Challenge Tour Rankings. Michael was so unlucky to miss out by one shot at the Qualifying School, but if he can improve his putting by a fraction, I’m sure he’ll make it onto the main Tour.
“If I’m not playing the Austrian Open on the main Tour, there’s a fair chance I might play the Challenge of Ireland myself. That’s the best thing about my win in Portugal – it allows me to pick and choose which events I play. The win also gave me great confidence, because there’s a big difference between thinking you can win golf tournaments, and knowing it. There was a time when I worried that I might never fulfil my potential, but now the future’s looking a lot rosier than it was.”
Hoping to follow in the footsteps of both men is fellow Irishmen McGeady, winner of the 2008 SWALEC Wales Challenge, and Shaw, who opened his 2009 Challenge Tour campaign with a respectable top 15 finish at the Club Colombia Masters presentado por Samsung.
Shaw’s highest Challenge Tour finish to date was a tie for fourth in last year’s Challenge of Ireland, played at Glasson Golf Hotel and Country Club.