Challengers, ready!

Mark McGowan
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Gary Hurley (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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The European Challenge Tour season kicks off with this week’s SDC Open in South Africa, but despite 10 Irish players holding some sort of status on the official DP World Tour’s feeder, only three are in the field at Zebula Golf Estates, just outside the remote spa village of Bela Bela.

Gary Hurley makes his long-awaited return to competition having endured a rookie campaign to forget on the DP World Tour last year, last teeing it up at the Soudal Open in May. Confidence high after navigating the treacherous waters of DP World Tour Q-School, Hurley made the cut in each of the three season-opening events, his best result being a tie for 14th at the AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open. But the Christmas break did him little favours and when he returned to action in 2023, he make just one cut in 10 starts, stepping away after his seventh ‘MC’ in succession.

Hurley is joined by Ballymena’s Dermot McElroy, who successfully retained his Challenge Tour card last year when finishing 61st on the money list and coming within a whisker of notching his first Challenge Tour victory at last years Challenge de Espana, losing out on the second playoff hole.

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Completing the Irish trio is Galway’s Ronan Mullarney, who is embarking on his maiden Challenge Tour season having graduated as leading money winner on the 2023 Alps Tour. Mullarney has been fine-tuning his preparations on the Toro Tour – a Winter Tour based in Andalucía – where he signed off with a win, albeit in a weather shortened event where he admitted that the additional competitive round would’ve been preferential, regardless.

The presence of 50 national players and invitees, largely made up of Sunshine Tour players and leading, otherwise non-exempt South Africans means that there are no places in the field for John Murphy, Conor O’Rourke or Mark Power, all of whom had entered but found themselves on the wrong side of the cut-off point. In fact, Mullarney had been on the outside looking in just a fortnight ago, but subsequent withdrawals saw him make the field with five places to spare.

And it’s a strong field, 156-players deep, headlined by defending champion JJ Senekal who went wire-to-wire with rounds of 62, 67, 69 and 65 for a -25 tally and a four stroke win in his native land. Also competing are two-time European Tour winner Thomas Aiken, the big-hitting Wilco Nienaber and five-time European Tour winner Alexander Levy.

Zebula Golf Estate is situated in the Waterberg region of Limpopo Province. The course is surrounded by nature and wildlife, with animals such as kudu, impala, blue wildebeest, zebra and giraffe being regularly spotted. The course itself was designed by Peter Matkovich and is recognised as one of the best locations in the world for a bushveld layout.

At 7,470 yards off the back tees, it’s far from short but at an elevation of 1250 metres, players should be able to hit the ball roughly five percent further than they could at sea level, so once again, scoring is likely to be low in each of the four rounds.

Hurley will be the first of the three Irish to get underway when he joins Swede Mikael Lindberg and Sunshine Tour-based South African Sean Cronje on the first tee at 07:10 local time (05:10 Irish time), and McElroy will start on the 10th an hour later in the company of South African duo Jason Roets and Sean Bradley. Mullarney is the last of the three to begin round one, and he’ll feature in the final group from the morning wave, also in all-South African company with Danie Van Niekerk and Jastice Mashego on tee number one at 08:30 local.

FULL TEE TIMES

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