Top-class line-up in pursuit of Northern Ireland Open crown
The Northern Ireland Open has become one of the standout events on the European Challenge Tour so it's little surprise that some of the game's top players were quick to add it to their schedule.
The tournament, which tees off tomorrow and is in association with SPHERE Global and Ulster Bank, boasts one of the strongest fields of the year with a captivating mix of in-form international players and a rich Irish representation from proven champions to aspiring youth.
This is Galgorm Castle's third year of hosting the €170,000 event and a record attendance of over 34,000 fans came through the gates in 2014 to witness Sweden's Joakim Lagergren clinch the €27,200 top prize.
Last year's champion beamed: "There were great crowds, especially over the last few holes; it felt like a main European Tour event."
One of the main attractions will be five-time European Tour winner Michael 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 in both of the last two years. He has shown good form recently however, 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 others 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 after 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 - it's as simple as that. In a way, the NI Open creates a career start for these guys and hopefully they can 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. "Without the NI Open I wouldn't have had 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 and Ruaidhri McGee.
However, the Irish won't have it all their own way 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 before winning the Aegean Airlines Challenge in Germany.
Spaniard Nacho Elvira is a two-time winner this season with plenty to play for after victories in Madrid and Austria. Rhys Davis is looking for a third success.
Three elite Irish amateurs will compete at Galgorm, including John-Ross Galbraith, who recently won the North of Ireland Amateur Championship at Portrush. He is joined by fellow Irish international Colm Campbell from Warrenpoint and Massereene's Tiarnan McLarnon.