Higgins looking for home run in Killarney

IRISH golf breaks new ground this week when the European Challenge Tour comes to our shores for the first time.

The Ireland Ryder Cup Challenge takes place over the Lackabane course in Killarney from Thursday to Sunday, boasting a prize fund of €130,000 and offering as many as 32 Irishmen the chance to pick up some Challenge Tour points, and in most cases some badly-needed cash, while six amateurs are also handed the chance to make a name for themselves.

The Challenge Tour has been good to the Irish over the years, with Raymond Burns from Banbridge leading the order of merit in 1994, while others to make their way on to the main tour courtesy of the secondary circuit include David Higgins, Michael Hoey and Peter Lawrie.

Of this quartet, only Lawrie has consolidated his place on the European Tour, a point well made by his fifth place finish in Hamburg at the weekend.

After a bright start, Burns has faded but Higgins and Hoey are set to return to the big time, having enjoyed outstanding seasons to date.

Higgins lies second on the Challenge Tour order of merit with €69,597.

Leading the way with €74,940 is the Argentinian Rafael Gomez, while Hoey is in 10th spot with €45,015.

The top 20 at the end of the season automatically win cards on to the main tour, leaving our other contenders, like Colm Moriarty, 69th with €10,679, Tim Rice, 78th with €2,105, and Justin Kehoe, 165th on €2,468, with ground to make up.

Up to now, the budding Irishmen have had to operate without a Challenge Tour event in their own country. At long last, that situation has been rectified, thanks to Fáilte Ireland, and there is every opportunity for them to use this week’s event to bolster their bank accounts and their golfing self esteem. A prize fund of €130,000 may not seem much when compared with the main tour, but at this level it counts for a lot.

For instance, the winner this week picks up €20,800, there’s €14,300 for the runner-up and €9,100 for third place.

That kind of pickings can do an awful lot for one’s order of merit status and would sit very nicely with any member of the 156-strong field at Lackabane.

All eyes, especially in Kerry, will be on Higgins, to see if he can add to his Challenge Tour victories in the NCC Open, the Gunther Hamburg Classic and Roles Trophy, all in 2000.

Given that he is playing in his native county, he will be under more pressure than usual but the 32-year-old Waterville golfer has plenty of experience and can enjoy the four days as his Tour card for 2006 is already guaranteed.

Hoey can also clinch his place this week, while the likes of Moriarty and Rice, will also look upon the Ryder Cup Challenge as a chance to improve their rankings.

Among the other Irish in the field are a host of young men who distinguished themselves as amateurs, such as Noel Fox, Justin Kehoe, Eamonn Brady, Sean Quinlivan, Michael McDermott and Johnny Foster, all winners of provincial championships before switching to the paid ranks.

Fox is only in the infancy of his professional career but the others have been around for a while and have discovered just how difficult it is to enter the realms of the Harringtons, Clarkes, McGinleys and McDowells of this world.

Other familiar names from their amateur days are Mark Murphy, Danny Sugrue, Gavin McNeill, Ciaran McMonagle and David Jones.

Experience should also help those who ply their trade on the domestic circuit, such as Jimmy Bolger, John Dwyer, Leslie Walker and Kevin Morris, while the half-dozen amateurs involved are Aaron O’Callaghan, Mervyn Owens, Greg Bowden, Aengus McAllister, Mark O’Sullivan and Mark Campbell.

The Killarney field is a nice combination of up and coming wannabes and players who’ve been regulars on the regular tour, have lost their cards and are searching for a way back.

German Tobias Dier captured the TNT Open on the main circuit in 2002, along with the dual badge North West of Ireland Open the previous year.

He forfeited his playing privileges in 2004 by finishing 264th on the money list.

Welshman Mark Mouland counts the 1986 Car Care Plan International and the 1988 Dutch Open among his victories on the European Tour but hasn’t been in the big time since 2003 when coming 206th in the order of merit.

Stuart Cage was rated one of the most promising golfers of his era, all the more so when he won the Cannes Open in 1997. But he slumped to 176th in the order of merit in 1999 and little has been heard of him since.

Ireland has been good to Cage in the past and he will hope for more of the same this week, a remark that also applies to Tino Schuster, the German who emerged from anonymity with an outstanding performance in the recent Open Championship.

Also in the field are the Italian Massimo Florioli and Englishmen Van Phillips, Lee James and Iain Pyman, just a few who promised much in the earlier days of their careers but have found life something of a struggle in more recent times.

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