Following a relentless summer schedule, the EuroPro Tour’s Order of Merit is beginning to take shape ahead of October’s Tour Championship with Ireland’s stop on the calendar set to prove pivotal to the aspiring pros taking their chance at Tulfarris.
The PREM Group Irish Masters returns to the four-star Tulfarris Hotel and Golf Resort Hotel for the second of three renewals pencilled in for the Wicklow venue and just like last year, it’s all to play for as the season nears its completion.
Those taking part will have a 2020 vision of securing one of five European Challenge Tour cards up for grabs with the EuroPro Tour again offering the stars of the future direct access to the second tier of European golf through the final Order of Merit, with players competing for over £1.2 million of prize money across the 2019 season.
The tour is played across 15 different venues with Tulfarris Hotel and Golf Resort being the only venue outside the UK to host an event.
The tournament provides Europe’s best up-and-coming golfers the chance to gain necessary experience of life on tour, and in particular in front of the TV cameras. A two-hour highlights package from each event will be broadcast on Sky Sports, and on 98 networks around the world beaming the spectacular images of Tulfarris Hotel and Golf Resort into 400 million homes.
Since its inception in 2002, notable Major winners such as Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel have won the overall EuroPro Tour, as have former Ryder Cup representatives Ross Fisher and Nicolas Colsaerts.
As ever, there’ll be plenty of Irish interest when the Tour rolls into town with Clandeboye’s Jonathan Caldwell the pick of the bunch, currently sitting just outside the top-5 on the Order of Merit in 10th spot as he looks to escalate his progression to the Challenge Tour next season.
Not exactly an up-and-coming talent, the now 35-year old mixed it with the best of them on the European Tour in ’09 when winning his Tour card for the first time but after losing his Challenge Tour playing privileges last year, he’s eager to return to that second tier of European golf as he continues to chase the boyhood dream that’s lingered since he was first introduced to the game by his Dad at the age of 11.
“I definitely want to be playing Challenge Tour,” said Caldwell. “The standard’s better, the potential earnings are better and they offer European Tour spots so it’s huge to get on that Tour and to stay on it.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t play great last year, I had four or five weeks where I made my money – missed out by 14 spots on an automatic full card and somehow ended up with zero starts this year because of the cut schedule on the Challenge Tour and European Tour.
“But I’ve been playing reasonably steady this year, driving the ball pretty good. Keeping it in play makes it that bit easier. The golf courses aren’t too demanding so if you do drive it in play you’re left with a lot of medium to short irons and you can make your scores from there.”
Having only missed out on the top-70 by 14 places, Caldwell presumed he would still be guaranteed some starts back on the more lucrative Challenge Tour this term, however, given the new scheduling, it seems there’s no guarantees anymore. In fact, even those finishing inside the top-5 on this year’s EuroPro Tour money-list can’t bank on a full schedule according to the Northern Irishman.
“Based on last year’s numbers, I should still have 14 or 15 Challenge Tour events this year,” Caldwell added. “Guys are getting weeks off when they would’ve been taking weeks off and I’ve ended up with zero starts which is horrendous, absolutely shocking.
“There are guys who’ve come off the EuroPro Tour last year in the top-5 and they’re struggling to get into events as well. The EuroPro Tour offer these five spots on the Challenge Tour but it’s not really five spots on the Challenge Tour. It’s still up in the air whether or not you’re going to be playing week in week out. From what I hear, they’re working on some things but what comes of that, who knows?”
Rather than getting consumed by details outside his control, Caldwell has been focussed on what he can influence and he’s been the model of consistency since picking up a tied 4th finish at the Matchroom Sport Championship back in May.
Of eight events played this term, he’s collected five top-10 finishes including four top-5’s with a win surely looming for the Northern Irish star. How dearly he’d love to break that duck back on home soil in Wicklow, not that home advantage will be a major factor.
“I’ve never played the course believe it or not,” confessed Caldwell. “I stayed there once, I met Pat Barrett a couple of years ago at Ballykisteen and I stayed at Tulfarris for a couple of night’s break when he was there.
“I obviously had a look around the place then, the golf course looked beautiful, it’s a beautiful setting. It’s great to have the hotel on site and from what I hear from last year, the guys were raving about it. I’m looking forward to getting down there for a couple of games hopefully before the event kicks off.
“And it’s a treat to get the opportunity to play at home too. It’s lovely to avoid flights, and delayed flights, rental car companies, traffic in England. To be only two and a bit hours down the road and to be able to get family and friends down to stay the week and enjoy it with me is something I’m really looking forward to.”
Whitehead’s John Ross Galbraith, Limerick’s Tim Rice, The Royal Dublin’s Niall Kearney and Ballymena’s Dermot McElroy are all on track to make the season ending Tour Championship in Spain but Tulfarris will be a crucial steppingstone if they’re to realise top-5 ambitions of their own.
Every penny counts in this sport and with just 60 players advancing to the Tour Championship set for Desert Springs come October, the lucrative £100,000 event, offering double the prize purse of a regular Tour event, presents players with the opportunity to leapfrog those long occupying the top spots with a sweeping season finish.
“It’s really difficult, you need some good backing,” Caldwell admitted of trying to carve out a career from the humble beginnings of the EuroPro Tour.
“Unless you’re finishing in those top-10 positions each week, you’re really only losing money. A lot of the young Irish players coming out have good pedigree but it can also take a wee bit of time for these guys to get the transition from being looked after in amateur golf to having to manage yourself and also compete for money, which is a different mentality in my opinion.
“I’m happy to give them my take on it, maybe try steer them in the right direction. I’ve made the mistakes that these guys are probably going to make as well so I’m certainly there if someone needs a bit of a hand, or a hit of confidence. I’ve been in the game long enough now that I’d like to think I could possibly help them in some way.”
For Caldwell, he can find his confidence elsewhere, not least, from the incredible success story of Shane Lowry’s Open win at Royal Portrush. 10 years separated Lowry’s Irish Open win as an amateur and his maiden Major title and Claret Jug triumph last month, and for Caldwell, he was there when the journey began.
“I played a practice round with Shane and Rory at Baltray that week in ‘09,” Caldwell recalled.
“Myself and Shane had played the Eisenhower Trophy with Paul Cutler in Australia the season before that Irish Open win which was a fabulous trip. Shane was always a fabulous player. Obviously, Rory McIlroy is who Rory McIlroy is and nobody was taking a huge amount of notice of these other guys coming through the Irish system, guys like Shane who’ve gone on to become the Open champion now which is crazy, absolutely phenomenal.
“I can remember how well Shane was playing that week in the practice round – did I think he was going to win as an amateur – not really, but he was playing some superb golf.
“It’s certainly motivating. I know the level I can play at and obviously I can see what these guys have gone on to achieve from those days. They’ve got better and better and better and it gives me great hope seeing what Shane’s done – not winning Majors – but that I could go and make a good career for myself in this game too.”
As for other home hopes for the week, time is running out for the likes of Tullamore’s Stuart Grehan, West Cliff’s Brendan McCarroll and Shannon’s Daniel Brennan should the trio harbour goals of making it to the potentially season altering final tournament.
After Tulfarris, there’s just two more events remaining for players to stake a claim in the grand finale, with the PDC Championship and Newmachar Challenge both scheduled for September.
Those on the peripheries will hope that the pristine layout of the 4-star Tulfarris resort will provide the catalyst for the required late season surge.
Set across three peninsulas and overlooking the Blessington Lakes, it’s a setup that creates a magnificent environment for golfers of all abilities. The course was designed by renowned architect Patrick J Merrigan, and under the ownership of PREM Group, the course underwent significant renovations over the last couple of years, improving the bunkers, greens, yardage markers, and hole maps.
Speaking ahead of the tournament, Jim Murphy, CEO of PREM Group stated;
“We are delighted to be on board as title sponsors to what is a really important competition on the Euro Pro Tour. To have such a major golfing event coming here is a great coup for the golf club and for the area. It’s going to be an incredible, international showcase opportunity for Ireland, Wicklow and for Tulfarris.”
This year’s staging is the second of a three year deal for Tulfarris to host the Irish Masters and entry for spectators is totally free.
The tournament is a 54-hole stroke play event. A maximum of 156 players will play eighteen holes on Wednesday 28th August and Thursday 29th August 2019. There will then be a cut to the leading 50 players plus ties who will play a final eighteen holes on Friday 30th August.
We’ve long heralded Tulfarris as a hidden gem amongst Ireland’s top courses here at IGM but if the second staging of the PREM Group Irish Masters is anything like the first, then the secret will be out and booking a tee-time at the Wicklow venue might prove a little less straightforward than we’d wish in future!