Hoey can home in on victory in Northern Ireland Open
Published 28/08/2013 | 01:30
Michael Hoey hopes the first Northern Ireland Open, which gets under way at Galgorm Castle in the morning, is the harbinger of many more top events to be staged in Ulster.
The success of last year's sell-out Irish Open staged at Royal Portrush, which was attended by over 130,000 during the four days, proved beyond a doubt the appetite for big time golf exists in Northern Ireland.
And while a Challenge Tour event might not have quite the same appeal as a tournament featuring the likes of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, Hoey reckons it's vital for Ulster to retain that feel-good factor by staging as many events as possible.
"I think the government felt like there should have been a follow-up to the Irish Open and want to try to get a European Tour event in two or three years' time," said Hoey, the ambassador for this week's tournament.
"This tournament will feed off the Irish Open's success. There are going to be good crowds at Galgorm Castle and a good atmosphere and hopefully that can lead towards bigger things."
The ultimate goal, of course, is to bring back the Open Championship to Royal Portrush, which is a good deal closer to reality after the overwhelmingly positive experience of last year's Irish Open.
In the meantime small steps have to be made and in that respect the return of the Challenge Tour here for the first time in 10 years is an important move to help keep the momentum going.
The Northern Ireland Open Challenge, presented by Clannah and XJET, comes with the current season heading towards a climax when the top 15 on the order of merit will graduate to the main European Tour.
It's a route which has been taken by Hoey, now a five-times winner on the main tour, most recently at the M2M Russian Open at the end of last month, but also by top players like Thomas Bjorn, Nicolas Colsaerts and Martin Kaymer.
After a glittering amateur career it took Hoey much longer than many anticipated to establish himself but looking back he says that he is a much better player for his experiences.
"Professional golf is tough and you look back on the days of the Challenge Tour and realise that it was tough.
"We played in them for not a lot of money and it was tough going. But we are fortunate to have it as a route to the main tour and it teaches you how to be competitive and be prepared for life on the main tour."
Hoey played in the last Challenge Tour event to be held here, the 2003 Benmore Development Northern Ireland Masters which was won in style at Clandeboye by Darren Clarke.
This will be Hoey's first appearance on the tour in five years and, like Clarke 10 years ago, he will start as a hot favourite on home ground – although he insists it won't be that simple.
"It's a real honour and privilege to help out the Challenge Tour," he said.
"I'm under no illusion about how difficult it is going to be just to get into contention, let alone win. There's a huge difference in the standard now compared to when I was playing five years ago."
Galgorm Castle is quietly establishing itself as an international venue, having hosted two EuroPro Tour events – the third tier – in the past couple of years and staging a Challenge Tour tournament is another step up.
Hoey is one of 14 Ulstermen in the field, and is joined by Galgorm's touring pro Gareth Shaw as well as Alan Dunbar, Paul Cutler and rising Ballymena star Dermot McElroy.
Three to watch out for
Jose-Fllipe Lima is the form man on the Challenge Tour, finishing second and third in his last two events the Finnish Challenge and the Rolex Trophy to move to second on the order of merit. A former winner on the European Tour, the Portuguese player has three wins to date on the Challenge Tour.
Daniel Vancsik is known as the Bear Wrestler because of his ferocious driving style. With two wins on the European Tour by comfortable margins in 2007 and 2009 after three on the Challenge Tour, it was a surprise when the Argentine ended up back on the second string circuit a year later.
Robert Dinwiddie has yo-yoed between the European and Challenge Tours, but there is enough to suggest that the Englishman can establish himself as a main player. He currently lies just outside the automatic promotion spots and he finished in 12th place finish at the Rolex Trophy.