Amid announcing the Horizon Irish Open’s triumphant return to The K Club for 2023, ’25 and ’27 was news that the Irish Challenge would take place at the iconic Straffan venue in the intervening years, starting this week from July 28-31.
While it’s understandable that the main tour event stole the brunt of the spotlight, the Irish Challenge taking a firm footing for the next few years was arguably more significant news, especially for the island’s fledgling pros hoping to take full flight in the paid ranks.
First played in 2015 when England’s Tom Murray captured the title at Mount Wolseley, the tournament was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic but despite briefly dropping off the calendar, the event returns to one of golf’s great venues in 2022, 2024 and 2026, ensuring Ireland’s future stars have the opportunity to progress from Europe’s secondary tour.
“It’s a big deal, particularly for guys who are looking to turn pro over the next few years,” says John Murphy who earned his full Challenge Tour card for this season via the Road to Mallorca rankings last year.
“I think it gives Golf Ireland some bargaining power with regards to invites to other events. Having that home tournament certainly gives them spots in other national fields which I think is going to be great for guys turning pro, especially coming off the back of a couple of tough years for guys who turned pro only to have very little opportunity due to Covid.
“There are many positives now to have it set in stone for the next few years and at The K Club too. I didn’t get a chance to play in it last year because I was still an amateur but I’m really looking forward to my first one now.”
Darwin Escapes golfer David Carey is one such player benefitting from Team Ireland’s allocation of starts. The Castleknock ace, who came so close to earning his Challenge Tour stripes off the back of last season’s Alps Tour Order of Merit, says the Irish Challenge holds the key to unlocking pathways of progression for players bouncing aimlessly between golf’s satellite tours.
“It’s the key event when it comes to getting starts, not only in the Irish Challenge but in other events too,” Carey explains.
“It gives Team Ireland the opportunity to go and trade and get us into other national events around the world. If it isn’t there, it’s going to really limit those opportunities in every way.
“Team Ireland do a great job working with us to ensure the starts that I have don’t clash with my Alps Tour schedule.
“Ultimately, it gives you another avenue to move up, so either the season goes well on Alps or if you just hit form at the right time or have a good finish on Challenge, it gives you another opportunity to progress.”
For those dipping their toes into professional waters, such opportunities early in one’s career can prove the difference between making it and not. And never has that been truer than now.
The impact of the pandemic deprived two years of newly-turned pros with the playing opportunities to stake their claim for status, and for many, it’s been a case of trying to make up for lost time ever since.
“It was obviously a little bit frustrating but there were plenty of people in the same boat and a lot more in worse positions so you always have to take a minute to step back and realise that it’s not the end of the world,” says Portmarnock’s Conor Purcell, who has thrived off limited starts, both on the Alps and Challenge Tours this term.
The Dubliner moved inside the top-10 on the Alps Order of Merit courtesy of a string of solid showings, including a runner-up result at the season-opening Ein Bay Open. However, it’s on the Challenge Tour that Purcell’s potential really shone through, bouncing back from a final round 78 at the Challenge de España when in contention with a T5 in Scotland where signed for weekend rounds of 67 and 68 to collect his career-best cheque worth €9,411. Now Purcell is looking forward to another chance to shine on home soil.
“I think the biggest thing when you first turn pro is getting all the opportunities that you can,” he says.
“When I turned pro, I never played the official Q-School that year so having some invites to play your way into some status on the tour is really helpful. It feels like I’m restarting a bit this year so any chance I can get is really important.
“It’s massive to have the event on the calendar and back at The K Club three of the next five years too.
“Any time you get to play in your home country is a big deal, whether it’s the Irish Challenge or the Irish Open, everyone looks forward to playing at home. Hopefully I’ll be staying in my own bed which is an added bonus!”
Like Purcell, Galway’s Ronan Mullarney was another player whose leap to the pro ranks coincided with Covid. A serial winner as an amateur, including intervarsity titles at the R&A Scholars tournament in St Andrews, twice at the Sterling Invitational, a Mullingar Scratch Cup plus an Irish Close title at Ballybunion, Mullarney, who plays his golf mainly on the EuroPro Tour, admits any opportunity to play golf at an advanced level is invaluable to his ongoing development.
“Any Challenge Tour starts you get through Team Ireland are like Majors for us,” Mullarney says.
“Being on the lower tour, any opportunity you get to play higher is always welcome. It’s obviously a bigger purse, better field, just everything goes up a level and you wouldn’t get that opportunity if it wasn’t for Team Ireland.”
A regular visitor to The K Club, where he’s always received a warm welcome, Mullarney holds a special fondness for the Palmer South but although he’s enjoyed success there in the past, he expects a much different challenge to greet players come tournament week in July.
“I cannot tell you how good they are over there. Conor, Niall and Liam couldn’t be nicer, and from what I hear, it’s any pro who visits, they couldn’t be more accommodating,” he says.
“I’m lucky to have played there loads of times and I really like the golf course. It’s very easy to say you like somewhere but I honestly do like that golf course, it’s a good test.
“I’ll get a couple of practice rounds in but if I find anywhere on that golf course that I don’t know already I’d be very surprised.
“In saying that though, I’ve played a lot of golf courses, like Galgorm for example. I played there when I qualified as an amateur in the Ulster Stroke Play. Later that year I played the Challenge Tour event and without being on a different property, it couldn’t have been more different. I can only imagine what they’re going to do at The K Club.”
For Kinsale’s Murphy, it’s not just the size of the opportunity the Irish Challenge presents, but the significance of The K Club’s involvement in the tournament that’s pushed the event to an even greater scale.
“My first ever memory of golf is the Ryder Cup in 2006,” Murphy recalls. “Obviously that was on the other course but certainly when you drive through the gates, it’s strange to think that was the first time I ever watched golf.
“The likes of Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley teeing it up in a Ryder Cup is a memory I’ll never forget. Just having so many events coming to The K Club over the next few years is great for Irish golf.”
Carey is one of few players who will tee-up at the tournament carrying winning course form.
“I won the 36-hole Team Ireland series event that we played there during Covid,” Carey remembers, having shot a three-under par 69 on the South Course before sealing victory with a two-under 70 on the Palmer North.
“They’re both Arnold Palmer courses and I always enjoy playing that style of design. Obviously when you enjoy playing somewhere that never hurts.”
Carey is relishing the prospect of playing in front of home crowds, describing the Irish Challenge as the best attended event on the schedule, and providing flare players like Carey with the perfect platform to shine.
“I mean, all us professional golfers, we’re all show offs really,” he jokes, “so it’s always great to play a home event.
“We always have more spectators and fans out watching than any other country. It doesn’t seem to matter what level, event or sport, we always have the best support so it’s great to get to play in front of that.”
Nobody fared better in front of the home faithful in 2021 than Dermot McElroy who scooped the Christy O’Connor Jnr award as the leading Irishman when finishing tied-fourth at Portmarnock Links.
“It gave me a lot of confidence,” the Ballymena man admits, who went on to win the EuroPro Tour’s Cubefinder Championship last year before adding a second title this season at the CPG Classic.
“It was my first event of the season but I went in playing well and now I know that when I play well, I’m going to be right up there and that’s really important.”
The EuroPro Tour regular, who also earns his Irish Challenge invite by virtue of his Team Ireland status, admits he’s eager to make the jump to the Challenge Tour sooner rather than later. The most obvious avenue is via the EuroPro Tour’s Order of Merit where five cards are on offer with the Ballymena man sitting pretty in top spot and eager to earn promotion having finished seventh on the money-list in 2021.
McElroy is all too aware of how juggling both tours in the meantime can impact his path to the Promised Land.
“I only missed two EuroPro events last year, one for the European Tour at Galgorm and the other at the Irish Challenge,” McElroy explains having tied 39th on Sunday the German Challenge.
“I ended up finishing seventh on the money-list, two spots off a Challenge Tour card. OK, I was three grand behind but potentially that could’ve made the difference.
“So there’s always that little bit of a dilemma getting these opportunities but at the same time, the more chances I get on the Challenge Tour this season, the more chance I’ll get to move up the ranks.
“I don’t want to be on the EuroPro Tour – it’s expensive and difficult to attract sponsors – but it’s a tough tour to get off – top-5 is tough going, whereas if you were to win on invite on Challenge Tour, all of a sudden you have a two-year exemption.
“I’m grateful to have another chance to do something like that this year at The K Club. If I’m playing well going into it, I think I’ll have every chance.”
Admission to the K Club to watch the home stars in action at the Irish Challenge is absolutely free.
- Register for tickets HERE