Paul Gallagher has a vested interest in the NI Open, looking after the media and PR for the last decade, and here he takes the chance to look back on how the event has evolved
It’s been quite a journey. In 2019 the NI Open will break new ground once more with plans to become the first co-sanctioned event in Europe between the European Challenge Tour and Ladies European Tour (LET). It will be most fitting that next year also marks 10 years of the NI Open.
In the interests of impartiality, this writer has been involved with the NI Open from the beginning before we look back at how this event has evolved over the last decade.
It seems a lifetime ago now that trips were made from Newcastle to Ballymena to get the ball rolling with the then George Best Invitational Pro-Am. It was a big deal – for us at least. Galgorm Resort & Spa were great supporters back then just as they are to this day.
All the mundane paperwork and planning was worth it as celebrities of all kinds made their way to Galgorm for a great day before being prized from their pennies at the charity auction.
Looking back, those early Pro-Am years were the seed from which the NI Open grew. It was proof – as if any were needed – that Galgorm Castle was ready and able to hold big events, hold a professional tournament.
The driving force is unquestionably Gary Henry and his team at Galgorm Castle. Christopher Brooke must also take a bow for his vision and commitment over the years.
If you spot Gary without a notepad and detailed lists, then you know something is wrong. He is organised and efficient and also sees the bigger picture.
These days he is flanked by Galgorm Castle’s Director of Golf Ross Oliver, who combined with their teams, co-ordinate the many moving parts of bringing the circus of an international golf tournament to town. Special mention must also go to caddiemaster Phil Hanlon and volunteer manager Jackie Neill and her colleagues.
The NI Open was first played on the PGA EuroPro Tour from 2010-12 but every year something new was brought to the party. To do the same thing was to stand still.
By 2013, it was time for the next step and become a European Challenge Tour event. Daan Huizing from The Netherlands was pushed all the way by 2008 Ryder Cup player Oliver Wilson before emerging victorious. Local favourite Dermot McElroy made a big noise that year by finishing tied eighth as an amateur.
The level of interest has been crucial. Grandstands and crowds are not typical at Challenge Tour events, but there is an insatiable appetite for live sporting events in Northern Ireland. Perhaps they come along less frequently in these parts, perhaps we are just nuts about golf and sport in general.
The NI Open had to be more than just a golf tournament; “A golf tournament for all the family” as the strapline went. It’s why the Food and Drink Festival of 2014, the Gin Fest of recent years or the introduction of the Junior NI Open all became integral parts of tournament week.
When stepping back from the minutiae, it’s easy to see how the NI Open has evolved in the last decade, just as the Galgorm Castle estate has too. When the journey started there was no Creative Gardens, Ivory Pavilion, Galgorm Castle Fairy Trail and Fun Golf Area or Business Courtyard Phase 2.
Last year was a new departure. With the Irish Open at Portstewart in close proximity in terms of time and location there was an opportunity to try something different. The Shootout Sunday format was teased out. The format worked but “everyone is pleased it is back to 72-hole strokeplay”.
The NI Open continues to set record attendances – over 43,000 spectators in 2017. The NI Open has benefited hugely from Modest! Golf and Niall Horan’s involvement. Horan genuinely wants to make a difference for the next generation and broaden golf’s appeal. If his Pied Piper impressions are anything to go by during NI Open week then he is doing plenty to introduce new people to the game.
The Modest! Golf NI Amateur Open is another masterstroke. It affords the best amateurs to compete for the top prize but also win a place in the NI Open. This year Galway’s Ronan Mullarney won in fine style with rounds of 67, 66.
And things are set to change once more with further exciting plans of the men’s and ladies’ event from 2019.
“It’s a great move to introduce the ladies’ tournament to the NI Open. This is very forward thinking by everyone involved,” added Hoey.
The NI Open has come a long way in 10 years.