The Northern Irish Open has evolved into a European first, writes Kevin Markham.
What a golden year for golf on this island. Five years ago, who would have thought that we’d host the Open Championship and have a winner from Co Offaly? Who would have thought the Amateur Championship would be contested at Portmarnock and that it would be won by a Cork man?
The Irish Open was a huge success and the party atmosphere in and around the town of Lahinch showed other countries, other tours, other tournaments just how much of a celebration golf can be — something reiterated at Royal Portrush, despite the rain that drenched everything except a nation’s spirit. 2019 is a year that won’t be forgotten… and it isn’t over yet.
Next week, another historic event will be played on these shores, at the Galgorm Spa and Golf Resort in Ballymena. The ISPS Handa World Invitational will see golfers of both sexes competing alongside each other, for equal prize money, in the first such event of its kind in Europe.
Presented by Modest! Golf, Niall Horan’s golf management company, this new international tournament will see professional golfers from over 30 different countries going head to head at Galgorm Castle and Massereene golf clubs.
The event, formerly known as the Northern Ireland Open, has been running for close to a decade and was the best-attended event on the European Challenge Tour. The World Invitational will undoubtedly continue that trend as it evolves to be more inclusive and egalitarian.
Next week’s tournament will include elite amateurs, with several future stars set to take part. Sixteen-year-old Tom McKibbin, from Holywood, is one of the highest-profile names: he recently won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley in the United States, and also secured the prestigious Peter McEvoy Trophy at Copt Heath, in England.
He will be joined by seven other male amateurs, while the 12 amateurs from the women’s game include the familiar names of Annabel Wilson and Paula Grant. In the spirit of inclusiveness, Brendan Lawlor, from Dundalk, will also be competing.
Brendan won the EDGA Scottish Open during the European Tour’s July Rolex Series event at The Renaissance Club, and is one of the world’s top disability golfers.
Changing the tournament status and format in such an innovative way was made possible when ISPS Handa and long-time supporters of the NI Open, Modest! Golf, engaged with the European Tour.
“We are very pleased to become involved in this exciting new World Invitational event for both men and women professionals,” said Haruhisa Handa, chairman of International Sports Promotion Society (ISPS) Handa.
“We recognise the work and efforts made by Modest! Golf, the European Challenge Tour and host venue Galgorm over the years and look forward to playing a part in the next chapter.
"Sport has the ability to bring people and communities together and we welcome the opportunity to work closely with all the partners for this exciting new event.”
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ISPS Handa has an international reputation for supporting golf around the world and it has collaborated with almost every major golf tour globally. The new World Invitational has attracted the best players from the European Challenge Tour as well as the leading women professionals from the US LPGA Tour, Ladies European Tour and players from Asia, Japan and Australia.
It means household names like Northern Ireland’s Michael Hoey, Australia’s Richard Green and many others will get the chance to tee it up alongside stars of the women’s game, including home-grown talent like the Maguire twins and Stephanie Meadow. It will be a very new experience for spectators visiting the event, which runs from August 14-18.
Modest! Golf has been a growing presence in the game in recent years, and a big supporter of the NI Open at Galgorm Castle.
The work of Horan’s company cannot be underestimated “We got into golf to help and develop the next generation of player. By supporting a tournament like this exciting new World Invitational, we are going to bring that goal to fruition,” explains Horan.
The company represents many high profile golfers, including Leona Maguire, but it landed its biggest success when it signed Tyrrell Hatton in June. This World Invitational, however, shows the company’s full ambition.
On the women’s side of the event one of many high-profile names competing will be European Solheim Cup captain, Catriona Matthew.
“We are absolutely thrilled Catriona will play in the World Invitational,” continues Horan.
Other high-profile names include American Beth Allen and Norway’s Marianne Skarpnord. Allen (37) has won three times in Europe and secured the LET Order of Merit in 2016. There will also be a strong representation from Australia and Asia, while Germany’s Laura Fuenfstueck, Sweden’s Lina Boqvist and India’s Diksha Dagar are inside the top 10 on the ladies’ European money list.
“We have created the opportunity for women to perform on the same stage as men and compete for the same prize fund,” explains Horan.
“I am delighted so many women professionals from around the world have seized the opportunity to compete in the event. We wanted to create something different, something unique, and with the help of ISPS Handa we’ve achieved that through the World Invitational.”
The Pro-Am takes place on Wednesday, August 14. It is free for spectators and will see the likes of James Nesbitt, AP McCoy, Tommy Bowe, Brian McFadden and Niall Horan, playing alongside the Pros. Register online at www.worldinvitational.golf for tickets.
The event boasts a new format with 300 competitors (168 men and 132 women) battling it out across two venues for a prize fund of $500,000.
The 72-hole strokeplay events for men and women begin with two rounds played at Galgorm Castle and Massereene. There is a cut on Friday, reducing the field to 120 (60 men, 60 women) with the final two rounds played at Galgorm Castle. There is a further cut after the third round with 35 men and 35 women playing on the final day.
Visit www.worldinvitational.golf for more information and tickets.