The Challenge Tour has a well-established reputation for developing the next generation of European Tour stars and the NI Open has gone even further, linking up with the GUI Ulster Branch to give talented amateurs a taste of the professional game.
Through a funding agreement with Sports NI, the GUI nominate a number of amateurs to play in the event at Galgorm Castle.
In 2013, Dermot McElroy (Ballymena) and Reeve Whitson [who has since turned professional] grabbed the opportunity to tee-it-up alongside the professionals in the inaugural NI Open.
Last year, McElroy was joined by John Ross Galbriath (Whitehead), Cormac Sharvin (Ardglass) and Colm Campbell (Warrenpoint) in the field and this year, Campbell and Galbraith will return for a second crack alongside Massereene’s Tiarnan McLarnon who booked his berth via his victory in the Specsavers North of Ireland Amateur Strokeplay tournament.
“It’s fantastic. It is something we can’t give them,” said Ulster Branch Secretary, Kevin Stevens.
“We can teach them, train them, bring them on game wise, but to give them an experience like that, we can’t do that, we have no equivalent.”
The GUI involvement with the event also involves the Ulster Branch’s junior panels who get a coaching session with one of the tournament professionals.
Kevin added, “This year we are involving not only our U-14 and U-16 panels but we have also asked the ILGU to nominate girls to attend.
“The participants will visit on the Saturday and Sunday with their parents and are hosted for lunch in the players’ lounge. They get a feel for the tournament and then a session with one of professionals.
“They get to hear what it is really like to be on tour and it opens some eyes.”
Kevin continued; “The primary focus is one of developing our elite players, to give those amateurs a feel for playing in a professional event. We are looking to select the players who are most likely to make that next step.
“We are also conscious of the fact that this is a top class event so we can’t really select players who haven’t reached the highest level.
“Unfortunately, we will always have competing events. This year the European Championships are on at the same time and that has had an impact on our selection.”
Both Campbell and Galbraith are determined to improve on last year’s performance. Galbraith fired rounds of 70, 72, 75 and 70 to finish tied for 56th, while Campbell missed the cut after rounds of 77/76.
“I spoke with Neil Manchip [national coach] and Tony Goode [Irish Men’s captain] about what to do and I decided to play at Galgorm.
“I think it’s important to give back in some way to Sport NI for the support they offer us,” said Campbell.
Campbell plans to line up with the hundreds of other hopefuls at European Tour Q-School in the autumn and welcomes the opportunity to measure his game against the professionals.
“Obviously that is the route I want to go down, so I definitely want to give it a go,” he said.
“Last year I wasn’t at my best and I was a bit disappointed coming away from it.
“Playing last year gave me an idea of what the standard is like and I still think I can compete. I have played well at Galgorm in the NI Strokeplay event in the past. I’m definitely looking forward to returning.”
Galbraith is also eager to build on the positive experience he gained last year.
“It was interesting to see the standard and how my own game compared,” said the 22-year-old.
“It was a big thing for me. I got an insight into how the professionals go about things, simple things like how you react in front of bigger crowds.
“I came away believing that I can compete at that level. I will approach things differently this time around, I am going to try and go as low as I can each day, what have I got to lose?”