Michael Hoey will make his first appearance in a regular Challenge Tour event for five years when he competes in this week’s inaugural Northern Ireland Open Challenge Presented by Clannah and XJET, a tournament he has helped to promote in his role as ambassador.
The five-time European Tour champion is one of 24 Irishmen, drawn evenly from the North and Republic of Ireland, who will tee up at Galgorm Castle Golf Club and Estates in Ballymena, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Hoey’s most recent victory came in the M2M Russian Open at the end of July, and he comes into the event on the back of another solid performance in last week’s Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, where he finished in joint 28th place.
Whilst Hoey would dearly love 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.”
Galgorm Castle Golf Club’s touring professional Gareth Shaw will hope to build on some noteworthy results this season, with the highlight a top five finish in The Irish Open in June.
Shaw 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.