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Hoey leading local challenge at Northern Ireland Open

By Jonathan Bradley

The last time a Challenge Tour event was held in Northern Ireland, the Benmore Development Northern Ireland Masters was won by Dungannon's Darren Clarke at Clandeboye in 2003.

The tour returns to these shores today with the first round of the Northern Ireland Open at Galgorm Castle and once again there are high hopes for another local winner.

Michael Hoey, a winner on the European Tour as recently as last month at the M2M Russian Open, has not competed in such an event since 2008 and after his recent good form will begin today as the firm favourite to be celebrating come Sunday.

Hoey tees off at 1.30pm in a group that also includes Marco Crespi and Jens Fahrbring.

However, Northern Ireland's hopes of seeing a local victory do not rest solely on the shoulders of the Belfast man.

He will be one of 14 Ulstermen teeing off at the tournament with the likes of Gareth Shaw, Alan Dunbar and Paul Cutler also in contention.

Shaw could hardly be more familiar with Galgorm given his position as the club's touring pro and that experience should serve him well throughout the tournament.

The Lurgan man is enjoying a season to remember and will be hoping that come Sunday he is one step closer to gaining a full European Tour card.

Any golfer featuring in either the top 15 of the Challenge Tour Order of Merit or the top 110 of the Race to Dubai gains a place on the main tour.

While he is in 61st place on the Challenge Tour, Shaw is just €53,000 short of the cut-off spot in the Race to Dubai.

Tying for fifth in his first European Tour event at the Irish Open at Carton House netted the 27-year-old €61,920 – by far the biggest cheque of his career.

He followed that up with another strong showing at the French Open, a tie for 11th place seeing him land a further €44,220.

Success here could propel him further up both leaderboards and see him emulate the likes of Hoey, Martin Kaymer and Nicholas Colsaerts by graduating from the Challenge to the European Tour.

He will be playing alongside Jordan Gibb and Baptiste Chappelan in the opening rounds.

Dunbar will be another one to watch for the local crowds with the 23-year-old teeing off at 1.20pm with Niall Turner and Marcus Armitage.

The Ballymoney-born golfer, who famously won the 2012 Amateur Championship at Royal Troon, is currently 223rd on the Challenge Tour Order of Merit with his five events this season having yielded €1,039.

There will be plenty of big names in action as well with a litany of former European Tour players on show.

Oliver Wilson was part of Nick Faldo's Ryder Cup team back in 2008, when he was ranked inside the top 50 in the world.

Kenneth Ferrie, who once finished sixth at the US Open, won the 2011 Austrian Open, while Nick Dougherty, despite a seemingly complete loss of form over recent seasons, has three European Tour wins to his name.

Less established figures will also pose a serious threat as, with the season soon to reach its climax, the race for tour cards intensifies.

Portugal's Jose-Filipe Lima is second only to Brooks Koepka on the Challenge Tour rankings and will be looking to make up some of the near €18,000 disparity.

South Korean Sihman Kim and Francois Calmels of France are third and ninth in the rankings respectively and are also sure to be in the mix come the final day.

In the group alongside Hoey, Crespi and Farhbring have both won Challenge Tour events over the last two months and are well placed to finish the year in the top 15.

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European Tour chief executive George O'Grady has led the tributes to former Ryder Cup player and renowned course designer Dave Thomas, who died on Tuesday, aged 79.

O'Grady, who presented Thomas with honorary life membership of the European Tour earlier this year, said: "Dave became a household name in the 1950s and 1960s when he helped to build the game in Britain and all over the world.

"He was a larger than life character, a truly great guy, and our condolences are with his partner Carol and Dave's sons Michael and Paul," he explained.

"Wherever the Tour has travelled, from Britain to the continent to the rest of the world, we have played on courses designed by Dave and both as a player and an architect he leaves a lasting legacy to the game he truly loved," he commented.

Thomas, who was born and raised in Newcastle, turned professional in 1949 when he watched some of the game's great champions including Ulsterman Fred Daly, Max Faulkner and the legendary Sam Snead competing in the Ryder Cup at Ganton.

Ten years later Thomas made his debut in the contest at Eldorado Country Club and he went on to play in three more Ryder Cups, the last in 1967 in Houston when he partnered a young Tony Jacklin in all four fourballs and foursomes.

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