Irish chase further success in €150,000 Challenge

OPTIMISM is high a successful season for professional golf in this country will be maintained, in the €150,000 Challenge of Ireland tournament, starting over the picturesque Christy O’Connor Junior-designed Glasson course near Athlone this morning.

Those with only a passing interest in the game are aware Padraig Harrington has retained the Open Championship, Graeme McDowell has twice (the Ballantines Championship in Korea and the Scottish Open) been successful on the European Tour and that Damien McGrane (China Open), Darren Clarke (Asian Open) and Peter Lawrie (Spanish Open) have also won on the number one circuit. However, there’s more to the story than that.

Michael Hoey (Moroccan Classic) and Michael McGeady (last week in Wales) have also claimed prestigious titles on the European Challenge Tour, and bringing the total to 12 Irish victories overall this season were Noel Fox, Alan Murray, Brian McElhinney and Simon Thornton in the third-ranked Euro Pro Tour.

Fox, winner of three East of Irelands, two Irish Opens and one West of Ireland in his amateur days, leads the pro Tour rankings with €26,479 from the second-placed Murray on €22,644, impressive credentials going into an admittedly higher class of competition at Glasson.

It’s an opportunity for a whole host of young, ambitious Irishmen to make their mark on home territory and set a marker for the rest of the season.

Limerick’s Cian McNamara, who at 18 became the youngest South of Ireland amateur champion in 2004 and turned professional in June on completion of his scholarship course at East Tennessee State University, makes his first appearance in the paid ranks. He is joined by another former “South” champion, Mervyn Owens of Mallow, Wayne O’Callaghan, Mark O’Sullivan, Danny Sugrue and Gary Madden.

While all hope to make the cut and enhance their bank accounts, the more realistic prospects of another Irish victory rest with McGeady, Hoey, Gareth Maybin and David Higgins, although local Colm Moriarty and Dubliner Stephen Browne have the ability to atone for disappointing campaigns.

For that to happen, though, the home contingent will have to perform to their very best, given the quality of the Glasson field. Former European Tour winners competing include David Carter (Irish Open champion at Druids Glen in 1998), David Park and Tobias Dier, while Richard Bland was one of those to lose out to Soren Hansen in a four man play-off for the Irish title at Fota Island in 2002.

Robert Rock of England and the Scot David Drysdale were just two of the field that made a big impression in last week’s Russian Open on the main tour. Leading the Challenge Tour order of merit is England’s David Horsey, a member of last year’s British and Irish Walker Cup team at Royal Co Down, with a total of €72,947, most of which was accumulated through wins in Belgium and France in mid-June and the first week of July.

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