Michael Hoey comes into this week’s Northern Ireland Open, in association with SPHERE Global and Ulster Bank, showing some of his best form of the season after a run to the quarter-finals in last week’s Paul Lawrie Match play event in Scotland.
The 36-year-old showed tournament winning form with his 7 and 6 thumping of Frenchman Gregory Havret to set up a quarter-final clash with Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat in the inaugural European Tour event at Murcar Links near Aberdeen.
For much of the quarter-final Hoey looked in control but eventually lost 2 and 1 to Aphibarnrat, who went on to win the event after defeating Sweden’s Robert Karlsson in yesterday’s final.
“Yeah, I didn’t expect that…it was good golf,” said Hoey of his fine performance against Havret. “I’m remembering some shots from a long time ago when I won the British Amateur (2001). And I’m holing a few putts too.”
Hoey will be hoping the putter stays hot for this week’s NI Open at Galgorm Castle where he is the venue’s Touring Professional and this week’s Tournament Ambassador for one of the biggest events on the European Challenge Tour schedule.
“People often say to me, 'how's your tournament going',” said Hoey, now in his third year as NI Open Tournament Ambassador. “Well, it's not 'my tournament' but that's a nice thing to hear. I am playing a part in it and I'd like to think that I have helped get support for the tournament.
Perhaps the only downside of Hoey’s association with the event so far has been on the golf course after his failure to make the halfway cut in two attempts. It's not for the want of trying and it's not easy being the face of a tournament, just ask Rory McIlroy or Germany's Martin Kaymer, who both missed out at their respective national opens this year.
“I am not going in with any expectations, none whatsoever. I will focus on just making the cut and if I do that, we'll look to push on over the weekend,” said the five-time European Tour winner.
Hoey will be joined at Galgorm by many household names, including fellow Irish European Tour winners; Damien McGrane (Volvo China Open 2008), Peter Lawrie (Open de Espana 2008) and Simon Thornton (St Omer Open 2013). Rosapenna’s Ruaidhri McGee is the highest ranked Irish player in the Road to Oman standings (18th) and will look to get back into the top 15 at Galgorm. (The top 15 players earn full European Tour Cards at the end of the season).
After 13 years on the road, Hoey has experienced plenty of ups and downs associated with playing golf for a living and has been able to pass on advice to the likes of Castledawson’s Chris Selfridge, who joined the paid ranks earlier this year and will also compete at Galgorm.
“Chris has long-term ambitions to progress onto the PGA Tour,” said Hoey, whose best finish to date this season is tied seventh in the BMW International. “Working your way up from Challenge Tour through to the European Tour is still the best approach.
“Having events like the NI Open means that players like Chris can get more starts on the Challenge Tour which is vital for their development.”
Hoey would also welcome more Irish company out on tour. “The likes of Graeme (McDowell), Darren (Clarke) and Rory (McIlroy) play a world schedule while I focus on Europe. From a selfish point of view, having someone else to travel with, to practice with would be helpful for me.”
Hoey doesn’t have far to travel this week and will hope to put on a show in front of home crowds.
This is Galgorm Castle’s third year of hosting the €170,000 European Challenge Tour event and each time this annual Northern Ireland spectacle returns bigger and better than before.
A record attendance of over 34,000 spectators came through the gates in 2014 to witness Sweden’s Joakim Lagergren win and receive the €27,200 top prize.
“Great crowds, especially the last few holes; it felt like a main European Tour event,” beamed last year’s winner, echoing the thoughts of so many of his fellow professionals.
This week’s key date on the international schedule ensured a top quality field for the NI Open as it is played the same week as the WGC – Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. With no regular European Tour event, it means a number of main tour players, from home and abroad, arrive in Ballymena to take on the pristine championship layout at Galgorm.
One of the main attractions will be five-time European Tour winner Hoey, who is also the NI Open Tournament Ambassador and Galgorm’s Touring Professional.
“I am not going in with any expectations this year, none whatsoever,” said Hoey, who missed the cut the last two years, but has shown good form of late after reaching the quarter-final of last week’s Paul Lawrie Match Play event on the main European Tour.
“There is no doubt the field is strengthened by the date. It means European Tour regulars like Damien McGrane, Peter Lawrie and Simon Thornton and other can all play.”
Thornton (St Omer Open 2013), McGrane (Volvo China Open 2008) and Lawrie (Open de Espana 2008) are all European Tour winners and bring a wealth of experience to the event.
Other former European Tour winners at Galgorm include England’s Nick Dougherty and Ross McGowan plus Wales’ Phillip Price, who famously defeated Phil Mickelson in the singles of the 2002 Ryder Cup at the Belfry.
Javier Ballesteros has one of the most famous surnames in golf and the son of legendary five-time Major winner Seve will be hoping to make a big impression this week. Ballesteros is one of many aspiring professionals cutting his teeth on the European Challenge Tour since turning professional last year.
Thornton recognises the value of the NI Open, especially for young players starting out. “It’s an important stepping stone for all aspiring golfers,” he said. “Without this event, some of these guys don’t get a chance - simple as that. In a way the NI Open creates a career start for these guys and hopefully they get on a run.”
One player taking full advantage is Chris Selfridge, who only turned professional in May but has maximised his opportunities with five top 25 finishes in his first six outings.
“I feel very comfortable out here (on tour) and things have started well,” said the 23-year-old from Castledawson, who picked up eight Challenge Tour invites through the NI Open and his management company BlackStar Sports. “Without the NI Open I wouldn’t have invites and without the invites I wouldn’t have turned pro, not right now at least.”
There are many Irish players hoping to make their mark at Galgorm, including Challenge Tour regulars like Niall Kearney, Gareth Shaw, Alan Dunbar, Michael McGeady or the high-flying Ruaidhri McGee.
McGee (24) has been the model of consistency with six top 20 finishes, including tied second in Madrid and third in the KPMG Trophy in Belgium. The highest placed Irishman on the Road to Oman standings is fighting for one of the 15 European Tour cards on offer at the end of the season.
However, Irish representation won’t have it all their own way at Galgorm as the overseas challenge will be varied and plenty. Portugal’s Ricardo Gouveia tops the standings in a season that began with six top 10s – including two runners-up in Kenya and Madrid – before winning the Aegean Airlines Challenge in Germany.
Gouveia is closely followed by the in-form Rhys Davies, who is looking for a third win that would give him automatic promotion back to the European Tour. The Welshman won the Turkish Airlines Challenge and the Fred Olsen Challenge de Espana.
“It’s really nice to play well again and win…I’ll regroup and try for a third,” said the 30-year-old Davies, who won the Trophée Hassan II in Morocco on the European Tour five years ago.
Nacho Elvira is another two-time winner this season with plenty to play for at Galgorm after winning in his home country in Madrid and again in Austria. England’s Max Orrin, who pushed Lagergren close for a time at Galgorm in 2014, enjoyed his second Challenge Tour win in Denmark in May and will welcome a return to the province.
Three elite Irish amateurs will compete at Galgorm including John-Ross Galbraith, who recently won the North of Ireland Amateur Championship at Portrush. The Whitehead golfer received an invite from the Golfing Union of Ireland (Ulster Branch) alongside fellow Irish international Colm Campbell from Warrenpoint (both played in 2014). Massereene’s Tiarnan McLarnon booked his place after winning Galgorm Castle’s North of Ireland Strokeplay title earlier in the season.
Ballyclare's Gareth Maybin, who caddied for a friend in the recent South of Ireland Amateur Open at Lahinch, is out action with a wrist injury and may not play again this season.
(Entry to the NI Open is free, simply register online at www.niopen.co.uk/tickets)