Leona set for starring role in historic NI Open on ladies Tour
They've never been afraid of taking a risk at Galgorm Castle.
NI Open organisers yesterday unveiled plans for an ambitious new departure, one that brings men's and ladies professional golf together under one banner from 2019 onwards.
Last year, the tournament introduced a match-play element as a one-off concept and from next year there will be two NI Open champions with the event set to attract the best players from the European Challenge Tour and Ladies European Tour (LET).
Plans at this stage will see Massereene Golf Club in Antrim used as the second host course alongside the NI Open's perennial home at Galgorm Castle in Ballymena.
There will be two 72-hole strokeplay events with both venues used before play concludes for both events at Galgorm Castle.
These are full-field events, 156 men and 140-plus women - and crucially the winners will walk away with the same prize money.
"You can just picture the scene on the final day, watching the last groups of the ladies coming through, battling it out for their title and then the men battling it out for their title," said Gary Henry, NI Open Event Director.
"We all are aware that you have to excite sponsors and it is reasonable to say that some of the potential sponsors we have been talking to are a lot more excited about this concept than a normal men-only event.
"The NI Open is currently one of Northern Ireland's core international tourism events. This next stage takes the event onto a global level and that is a fundamental change.
"That is going to be achieved by having the likes of Leona Maguire who is performing on the world stage coming here to compete along with the exciting talent and established stars on the Challenge Tour."
Modest! Golf Director Niall Horan - of One Direction fame - and their management company have been involved with the NI Open for several years and their continued support has unquestionably raised the profile and also helped their vision of trying to "develop the next generation of players".
Modest! Golf is a boutique golf management company with a select number of players on the books, including Lisa and Leona Maguire, who joined the Modest! stable in 2018.
"From our point of view, we have always challenged Gary and the team here, asking them how they can make the NI Open bigger and better," said Modest! Golf director Mark McDonnell.
"Last year's Shoot-out Sunday was always going to be a one-off, it was a way to shake things up. We can't think of a better time to launch this new vision for the NI Open.
"It is an opportunity to shine a light on some highly talented young golfers, like the Maguire girls, and give them a stage to showcase what they can do."
The idea of bringing ladies and men's tournaments together is not a unique concept.
The joint format was introduced at the Vic Open in Australia and has evolved into one of the country's most high profile professional events while last week tournament ambassador Michael Hoey played in the European Team Golf Championships at Gleneagles.
It will however signal the long-overdue return of a ladies pro event to Ireland for the first time since 2012 when Scotland's Catriona Matthew won the Ladies Irish Open at Killeen Castle in County Meath, venue for the 2011 Solheim Cup.