With a runner-up finish at the Irish Challenge at The K Club, ending the week six shots off runaway winner Todd Clements, Tom McKibbin, the Galgorm touring pro, has broken into the top-20 in the Road to Mallorca standings and has finished in the top-15 in each of his last four events.
In the short-term, McKibbin is gathering momentum nicely towards the tail end of the Challenge Tour season and in the long-term, he can pencil in one event for the 2023 season already: the Horizon Irish Open.
Courtesy of winning the Christy O’Connor Jnr. Memorial Trophy as the best Irish finisher at the Palmer South course, McKibbin is the second name – after defending champion Adrian Meronk – to be assured of his place in the field for next year’s event, which will be played at the Palmer North course.
“To be able to come back and play on the main course for the Irish Open will be cool,” grinned the 19-year-old after recording his best ever professional finish on home soil.
He secured second place in style, too, rattling off six straight birdies on the front nine – starting at the second – and then adding two more and two bogeys on his way back to the clubhouse for a six-under 66 to set the target at 13-under-par.
Gary Hurley and John Murphy both threatened, with the latter needing an eagle down the last to tie him, but when he could only manage a birdie it meant McKibbin was assured a return to Kildare in a year’s time.
“After the six birdies in a row the momentum was really building. It was a great way to start (the round) and a great way to end the week,” said McKibbin.
“I’d say (the ninth, which he bogeyed to end his run) is probably the toughest hole on the course, everyone is trying to keep it away from the left-hand side there. Bogey there was fine.
“Starting the day I would have taken five-under after nine alright. Todd was playing unreal, clearly, to go out there with a five-shot lead and keep building it is impressive. I just gave it my all and tried to go as low as I could.
“It’s been a pretty good week. Felt a wee bit all over the place off the tee, but I’ve putted well and I’ve hit it close enough and took advantage of the the good stuff I had.”
While he now has one guaranteed DP World Tour start next season, the hope is that he will be a fully fledged member of the premier European circuit next season by earning promotion by finishing inside the top-20 on the Road to Mallorca, a position he now inherits after this finish.
With ten events still to go before November’s Grand Final, McKibbin knows his promotion is far from guaranteed, and by the time he returns to Challenge Tour action after a week off and then playing at the ISPS HANDA World Invitational at Galgorm and Massereene, the odds are he will have dropped out of the top-20.
But the teen is a man in form, revealing that working with putting guru Phil Kenyon has revolutionised his work on the greens, and he hopes he can carry that through for the rest of the season and better his 2023 playing rights.
“That’s nice going into the last half of the season, it’s great to have that to build on and play my way in hopefully towards the end of the year. Should be a good rest of the season,” adds McKibbin.
“It’s nice momentum to have. I’ll go home and work on some stuff that I didn’t feel was great. Definitely looking forward to the rest of the year.”
It is worth remembering that this is only McKibbin’s first full year as a professional, too, having only entered the full-time ranks in April 2021, and he concedes that this season has been a baptism of fire to a degree.
And the Holywood man believes the biggest improvement he has seen – along with his putting – has been at the lower end of his game and ensuring that his bad rounds aren’t as bad as they might have been when he was dazzling as an amateur.
“I’d say learning is a different word, you learn anywhere,” he countered.
“It sharpens you up. If you’re not on, you’re nowhere near it unless it’s playing really hard and you’re grinding it out. But most places, unless you’re shooting three- or four-under every round you’re losing places. It has improved my bad golf, anyway. You can’t have over-par rounds.
“Some things can hurt, so learning for a few things for other events definitely helps.”