When Niall Horan and his Modest! Golf team came on board as hosts of the Northern Ireland Open in 2017, it signalled a new era for what was one of the most popular events on the Challenge Tour schedule.
While the work done up to that point by the likes of Galgorm Castle managing director Gary Henry had been magnificent — and he continues to do fantastic work with the tournament — the former One Direction star’s influence has undoubtedly helped unlock the event’s full potential.
After all, with his global outreach, Horan’s mere presence in Ballymena saw 40,000 fans flock to the course for the 2018 Pro-Am. And it was his link with ISPS HANDA that saw the Japanese company come on board as title sponsor in 2019 which, in turn, led to the current format that has seen the event become the first ever Northern Hemisphere golf tournament to feature men and women at the same event competing for an equal prize fund.
And with the European Tour, LPGA Tour and Ladies European Tour all coming on board for the first time this summer, and with Horan’s backing and potential attendance — coronavirus permitting — the World Invitational is ready to hit new heights, and the man himself is delighted with the growth of the tournament.
“How it all kicked off with the Challenge Tour... the tournament was plodding along and then we sat down with Keith (Pelley, European Tour chief executive) and it grew into something completely different,” says Horan.
“Galgorm is a special spot, and the guys that run the show there, Gary (Henry) and the guys, are unbelievable. It’s going to be good to head back to the area. I feel very comfortable in the area, we’re always looked after really well.
“When people have said that golf is struggling a touch, I’ve always thought in Ireland it’s getting stronger. We saw what happened at Portrush, crowds were insane, one of the fastest selling Opens of all time. At a Challenge Tour event, we’ve had 40,000 people through the gates at one point, which is incredible.
“It’s been huge to see how this tournament has evolved over the years from a Challenge Tour event to the World Invitational with a smaller prize fund, the first of its kind, and now with sponsors and being sanctioned, it’s going to be the real deal. It’s going to be great.”
While he’s quick to downplay his influence, it’s undeniable that Horan is slowly changing the perception around golf simply through his involvement. His work with the World Invitational is only the latest in what has been an increasing immersion in the sport, both with Modest! and by partnering with the R&A.
The women’s game is part of that, with the potentially game changing World Invitational format a chance to give equal merit to the elite level of the sport for both genders and perhaps even give a glimpse into the future.
“This is a monumental day for men and women to play for equal prize money in Europe. These girls are as gifted and don’t generally get the plaudits they deserve. That’s what we’re trying to showcase here,” adds Horan.
“They’re so talented and they deserve all the money and television time. This is golf trying to fulfil its potential, and hopefully the needle will move and soon we’ll have a level playing field.”
But Horan’s work doesn’t end with what he’s doing in Co Antrim. He’s as passionate and enthusiastic when talking about how to dispel the unfair perceptions around golf, while he is an active advocate for promoting the women’s game at all levels and giving it more exposure.
The World Invitational is certainly a start, but the singer has a keen interest in making sure the impact doesn’t just last for the week the pros hit Galgorm and Massereene. Rather, he’s intent on ensuring that there’s a long-lasting effect of having the likes of Stephanie Meadow and Leona Maguire teeing it up in front of thousands of young female golf fans.
That, he hopes, will be his legacy, rather than just making a difference at the elite level.
“Going round the world, I’ve seen the power of my fans, and how a lot of those would be young females and the passion that they have — that can only lead to great things,” he points out.
“I watch all sorts of golf, it’s always been inclusive to me. It’s about getting them to pick up a club and giving it a go. If I can only get a couple of per cent of my 41 million (Twitter followers) into golf then it’s a game changer, because a couple of per cent of a lot of people is still a lot of people.
“If we grow the women’s game, we grow the game in general, and it’s as simple as that.”