Fans flock to Northern Ireland Open as chiefs hail event success
Over 32,000 people have registered for tickets for this year's Northern Ireland Open Challenge, setting it on course to be the first event ever on the Challenge Tour to be completely sold out.
Even European Tour chiefs can't quite put their finger on why events in Ulster – following on from the phenomenally successful 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush – should draw such massive crowds time after time.
But they are determined to make the most of it and keep coming back.
Swede Michael Eriksson is the Challenge Tour's tournament director at Galgorm Castle this week.
"It was a great success last year, they did a fantastic job and it's exactly the same this year," he said.
"The golf course was in brilliant condition last year, but I think it is even better this year.
"There's a great atmosphere.
"The effort and the interest that has been created around the tournament makes it something special with the grandstands and the hospitality and the practice areas and so on.
"But it also comes down to the fact that the people in this area are very interested in and very knowledgeable about their golf.
"The players were really happy last year with how it was set up, and they were quite surprised as well.
"It wasn't at all what they were used to."
Galgorm Castle captain John Carruthers played yesterday's Pro-Am in the company of former European Tour regular Maarten Lafeber who was enticed to Northern Ireland by the reports he heard back from his fellow players from last year.
"He was really impressed and said he had been determined to get here," Carruthers said.
"He said he felt it was set up extremely fairly and only players who play well will be able to score.
"And he loved the fact that there were a few tricky holes out there also.
"He was especially taken with the sixth.
"For us as members, it's very interesting to see how these extremely good players play our course and they aren't taking it apart.
"Something like 14 under won last year and I would be very surprised if anyone went lower than 12 under to win this year if the wind stays as breezy as it is today."
Galgorm were delighted when the Challenge Tour came back after last year to say they wanted a repeat performance and equally the Tour were pleased to return.
And now that it has become established, the set-up at the Co Antrim club could be rolled out as the way a Challenge Tour event should be staged.
"To have 32,000 tickets pre-booked is unheard of on the Challenge Tour and it's great for the players to play in front of crowds as big as that. Nothing comes near," said Eriksson.
"We would love to be here for many years to come.
"Having this number of people doesn't just create interest here, it creates interest in the Challenge Tour in general around the world.
"It could be the trigger for other sponsors to get involved in other tournaments, or create new tournaments and I think there will be other venues looking at this tournament to see how they can improve."
Galgorm hope to see the benefit of so many people coming through the gates over the next four days, although entirely in an altruistic way.
"Golf club membership is down at most clubs and we want to see more people taking the game up," said Carruthers.
"The spectators we have already had here this week have been extremely knowledgeable and are obviously people who play the game and it's a pleasure to have them.
"It would be good to see club membership rise.
"The atmosphere around the club has been great all week and we had a good number of spectators out for the Pro-Am."
The bottom line on the Challenge Tour is that everyone playing on it wants to go onto better things.
"And because the standard of play is improving year on year, it could be that well set-up courses and events like Galgorm become the norm instead of the exception in years to come.
"I don't think there is any doubt that the play is getting better year on year," said Eriksson.
"There is great competition among the players and the standard of the players, who are working harder than ever, deserves great venues."
Although the tickets have almost all been snapped up, there are still some available, free of charge.
To register for a free ticket online go to niopen.co.uk