The final full-field event in this year’s far-reaching Challenge Tour schedule is almost here as the stars of the future take aim at Headfort Golf Club for the 2019 Stone Irish Challenge this week (10-13 October)
The Royal County of Meath will provide a fitting backdrop to the New Course in Kells when the tournament returns to the International Schedule for a fifth consecutive year.
Proudly perched at number 42 on Irish Golfer Magazine’s top-100 courses in 2018, the Headfort New Course is a picture-perfect parkland sure to provide an acid test to those seeking a place in this year’s Grand Final at Club de Golf Alcanada.
The Irish Challenge has secured pride of place in the calendar and is the final full-field event of the season before the leading 53 players on the season-long rankings head to the Far East for the Hainan and Foshan Opens in China.
From there, the top-45 players from the season tee it up at the Challenge Tour Grand Final in Mallorca, where the top-15 players on the rankings will earn European Tour cards for next season. Safe to say then, that the Stone Irish Challenge is going to have a big say in the outcome of many a hopeful’s season.
One man who knows a thing or two about striving for Tour status is Headfort Head Professional, Brendan McGovern who battled bravely to secure his Staysure Tour card back in 2018.
Having joined Headfort in 1991, McGovern has a wealth of knowledge around the luscious green parkland and although he’s thrilled to have the chance to showcase the venue in October, he won’t be teeing it up amongst the stars of the Tour at his home club.
“Headfort’s a great venue anyway but to have the European Tour recognise this place as a venue is super for the golf club. It’s a great opportunity for everyone involved to really showcase the venue,” said McGovern.
“I won’t be playing in the event because I feel somewhere along the line you have to move on. There’s no point of me keeping a young player out of a tournament like this. I’d be more than likely keeping an Irish player out too. You have to move on.”
It’s clear that McGovern can empathise with the travails of the young men vying for limited opportunities from week to week as a man now without full status on the Senior Tour this season.
“I’m not trying to start a career, I’m on the other side,” McGovern continued. “It’s a bit like being on the Seniors. I’m first reserve for France in a couple of weeks and I’m kind of wishing, ‘if someone else would just move on, I’d be in!’ That’s what it’s like.
“Being a first reserve is a nuisance because when you don’t know, you can’t plan. At least when you’re playing, whether it’s good or bad, you know you’re going and you can plan.
“The previous three years, I would’ve booked my flights three or four months in advance. I’d know where I’d be to December, whereas now, I’m booking flights without bags or clubs. I’m not booking accommodation. You don’t know where you are and that’s like a two-shot penalty.”
And a two-shot penalty is the last thing these budding superstars will need when they tackle Headfort, a largely unknown proposition for the vast majority of the field. For McGovern, the test will be laid out for all to see and whether or not that means the New Course will be vulnerable to a Tour that’s witnessed scorching hot scoring all season, the Head Pro isn’t concerned.
“The standard is good and the scoring will be good on the golf course,” McGovern believes. “Even though it’s in October where it will play a little bit longer, as far as these guys hit it, the length won’t be the issue. The strength of the golf course is that they’re going to hit every club in the bag and that is a sign of a really good golf course.
“I see scores of around 16-under winning the tournament, if not lower, unless you get silly weather which hopefully we won’t because normally that week is pretty good. If you look back at Dunhill Cups first week in October, whatever it is about the changing seasons in Scotland, it’s normally perfect weather here.
“The standard is good, so let it be good. Sometimes people want to trick up a golf course. No! If these guys can shoot 62, let them. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Five-time European Tour winner, Michael Hoey is someone hoping that the New Course can provide a stern test to ensure that the five-under par halfway cut marks that have been a hallmark of the Challenge Tour this year won’t be repeated in County Meath.
“I’ve only played the Old Course but from what I’ve heard, the golf course will play soft and will be a proper test for Challenge Tour,” said Hoey who’s largely plied his trade on the Main Tour this season.
“It will probably be one of the toughest of the year at Headfort which I think the Challenge Tour needs. We don’t want it to be 23-under par; it might be a 12-15 under par winning score at Headfort which is what the guys really need.”
As far as Irish venues go, the New Course at Headfort has serious pedigree. Designed by Irish golfing legend Christy O’Connor Jnr and opened in 2000, the course boasts a collection of par threes up there with the country’s finest while at 7,125 yards, it won’t be short on length in October either.
Headfort Golf Club’s connection to O’Connor Jnr will be further strengthened this year as the Irish players in the field once again vie for the Christy O’Connor Jnr Memorial Trophy, which is awarded to the lowest scoring Irishman. Last year, Naas professional, Conor O’Rourke claimed that honour and he’s particularly relishing a rare return to the old country where the opportunity to avail of home comforts won’t be one he passes up.
“I was here playing Leinster finals years ago,” said O’Rourke at a media day in Headfort. “I remember a lot of the course and it was a really, really good test. It should be a brilliant venue.
“It’s great to have an event at home too. You spend so much time away so to be able to take advantage of home comforts, sleep in your own bed and enjoy Mam’s cooking – I’ll get spoiled for the week again so I’m really looking forward to it.”
It’s been a largely disappointing season for the Kildare man who’s been plagued by a niggling wrist injury suffered in Egypt at the start of the year. By contrast, Robin Dawson’s been fit, though firing inconsistently in his first full year as a professional.
Although the Tramore golfer has never played the New Course, he enjoyed a glittering amateur career back home and seems to still excel in Ireland having enjoyed his best week of 2019 so far when returning to Lahinch for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open where he collected his biggest prize in the paid ranks to date – a cheque worth €58,035.
There’s been a clear bedding-in period for Dawson this season as he gets to grips with the demands of a Tour that allows little room for error but he’ll be looking to put his best foot forward on home soil come October 10.
“If you play average, you’re going home and that’s it,” said Dawson of the cut-throat nature of the tour. “You have to play well even to just make the cut. If you make the cut, you have to keep pushing for four rounds, keep making birdies because the fact it’s so bunched, you’re never that far away from the top if you keep going.”
“I haven’t played the course at Headfort but I’ve heard it’s in great condition. I’m really looking forward to the event. October’s a great time of year for golf in Ireland and the Irish crowds are great to follow golf. Being so close to Dublin, I think we’ll get great support. I’ll have my family up that week as well which will be really fun. They don’t get to see me play too often these days so it should make for a great week.”
Proud Kells man and local hero, Damien McGrane hopes to be amongst the support party when the Challenge Tour comes to town. The former European Tour winner, who’s now Head Professional at Carlow Golf Club, sees no reason why the event won’t prove an overwhelming success.
“Headfort is a fine complex and it’s proven to be one of the top Irish complexes,” said McGrane. “To have the Challenge Tour coming, I think they can get the best out of it. It’s a good course. It’s got a little bit of length in it. That time of year it could play soft which will add a few extra yards to a few holes.
“The town and the area will embrace having the Challenge Tour there. It’s very, very important for Headfort. I’m from Kells, I grew up in Kells, I’m from the town so I would like to think I’ll go and support them when the times comes.
“I’d like to be there for the prize giving and wish well whoever wins a great event. Obviously for our own sakes, we’d love to see some of the Irish players compete and use the event as a steppingstone for their careers but whether that happens or not, it should still be a great week.”
Headfort will be hoping that it will be remembered as another great week in a long line of so many in what has been an extraordinary year for Irish golf. Since Padraig Harrington was announced as European Ryder Cup Captain over Christmas, the luck of the Irish has been very much in, with Shane Lowry winning in Abu Dhabi in January just the start of an incredible stretch of golfing bliss for the island of Ireland.
From James Sugrue’s monumental win at The Amateur Championship in front of a 3,000 strong home crowd at the final in Portmarnock, to Jon Rahm’s second taste of Irish Open success at a festival of golf at Lahinch, to the raucous scenes that greeted Lowry’s first Major success at the 148th and most historic Open Championship perhaps of all time at Royal Portrush, 2019 has been a year for the ages.
Of course, such a celebrated season will prove a hard act to follow but unsurprisingly, Emmet Staunton, Operations Manager at Headfort is just thrilled that Headfort Golf Club will be part of the conversation.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” gushed Staunton. “The New Course at Headfort is designed to host big events. We believe that it is Christy O’Connor Jnr’s best design. We feel it’s been crying out for an event like this and we’re delighted to be part of a big summer for Irish golf.
“Considering all of the events that have been on, and more recently, the representation of three guys on the Walker Cup team and the Home Internationals coming to Lahinch, it’s been a really special time for the sport in Ireland and we’re delighted to be part of it.”
What’s more, given the significance of the Stone Irish Challenge in the schedule this year, Staunton is confident that the importance of the event won’t be lost on the Irish public as he and his team prepare for a good crowd to arrive through Headfort’s gates come October 10.
“There’s going to be players trying to maintain their status, guys trying to elevate themselves to the Main Tour. People striving just to win the title. There’s a lot of stories there and a guaranteed strong field so we’re hoping for a good turnout,” said Staunton.
“It’s free entry so that’s great but if we can get an Irish contender and good weather to go with it, that will make a big difference to what should be an already superb week.”