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Rising to the Challenge – Irish Golfer Magazine

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The Irish Open, the DP World Tour’s annual tournament that is very much the showpiece event for Irish golf, needs no introduction, but the Irish Challenge, a fixture on the second-tier Challenge Tour, is no small undertaking.

The Irish Challenge returns to the K Club in 2024 as part of a six-year deal agreed between the Kildare club and the DP World Tour in 2021 which sees the Irish Open and the Irish Challenge return in alternating years until 2027.

To have the tournament venue sewn up for even years reduces the workload considerably for the tournament organisers who typically start the search process for a suitable site to hold tournaments over a year in advance.

“In this instance it’s the second time we’re going back to the K Club, and the agreement we reached was to hold the Irish Challenge there in 2022, 2024 and 2026,” said Sam Townend, a Senior Manager with the DP World Tour organisation and the man tasked with making all the necessary arrangements for events on the Challenge Tour.

“But ordinarily, it would start more than 12 months out from an event if we’re looking to secure a venue. We’re currently in negotiations to secure a venue for 2025 and 2027, so you could say we’re even working three years in advance, so they are all a long time in the making.” Among the most pressing concerns in selecting a venue is, of course, the golf course itself and ensuring that it meets the standard required for the quality of player who will be taking part.

“These guys are hugely talented professional golfers and there’s always a few elite amateurs, so it requires a top-quality golf course that is a good challenge and a good test,” Townend explains, “so it has to be an appropriate length for guys that move the ball out there a long way and the quality and conditioning of the playing surfaces are important to the player experience.

“But away from the actual course, in an ideal world you have a club and existing facilities for everything that you need off course such as players’ lounge and catering, hospitality space, and office space for tournament admin.

Of course, if that’s not possible, we can bring in temporary infrastructure, but that has budgetary impacts and it’s obviously more sustainable if you can make things work with existing infrastructure, so the K Club is ideal in that regard.

“Another consideration is the driving range and practice facilities because they get hammered by a field of 156 over the tournament, especially the pre-tournament days. Again, these guys hit the ball over 300 yards so to find practice facilities that can stand up to that and have 25, 30 guys at a time hitting drivers is hugely important.”

When you take a field size of 156 players, add caddies for the approximately 50 percent of the field who will have somebody on the bag for the week, tournament volunteers who number roughly 50 per day, tournament staff of around 20, a medical team comprising physios, doctor and strength-and-conditioning coach, a TV crew of around 25-30 personnel, and all of the additional media covering the tournament on any given week, you’re somewhere in the region of 300 people who need to be catered for before spectators are even taken into consideration.

“There’s a level of expectation with every event,” Townend said, “and whilst we wouldn’t be at the level of an Irish Open for instance, spectators will want to be able to grab a coffee, grab a beer, have lunch and have somewhere to be able to sit and enjoy it whilst watching the golf so they all need to be looked after too to ensure they enjoy the event.”

Whilst local suppliers are used as much as possible for any infrastructural requirements such as generators, cabling, tents, there are so many other items that require shipping on containers or in trucks such as the minimum 400 boxes of premium range balls that will be used over the course of the week, course-marking paint, and Challenge Tour branding. Each hole will have a par and yardage board, and there will be upwards of 80 sponsors boards, caddie bibs, tee markers, pin flags, and each of these are unique to the course and the event in question, so again, where possible, these will all be sourced locally or from existing suppliers.

“There is a big push to be more sustainable and we’re very aware that international travel and the nature of the business that we deliver with different events in different markets, different countries, requires people getting from A to B, so if we can work with local suppliers and be smart in our decision making, we can minimise our impact and our carbon footprint at the event itself,” Townend added, “so we do what we can to offset that as much as possible.”

Over the course of the year prior to staging an event such as the Irish Challenge, the operational staging team would typically make at least three site visits, and the tournament director and Tour agronomy staff would make additional visits to ensure that the conditioning is all in order, but there wouldn’t be a week that would go by without several phone calls being made with the Irish Challenge as the number one topic of conversation.

“As we get closer to the tournament, where we are now with a couple of months to go, it’s multiple phone calls a day whether that is between ourselves and the venue or meeting up as team, engaging with suppliers, speaking with sponsors and trying to promote the event, so there isn’t a day which it’s not being considered.

Because of its history as a Ryder Cup venue and Irish Open host, the K Club’s Palmer North course is the better known of the two courses on site, but the Palmer South course is an excellent course in its own right and more than capable of challenging tour pros as witnessed in 2022 when the cutline fell at level-par and just four of the 67 to make it were double digits under-par at the end of the week.

“Anywhere else, as a stand-alone venue, it would be held in really high esteem – and it very much is – and the greens the last time we were there were some of the best that we’ve had all season and we’re confident that that will be the case again in 2024,” said Townend, who once again is hoping for a strong showing from the local players after both Tom McKibbin and John Murphy came close in 2022.

“We’re playing in a golf loving country and players see it as a privilege to play in front of crowds that appreciate good golf, and to have the local audience getting behind their homegrown talent would be fantastic for the event. Tom finished as the leading Irishman in 2022 and won the Christy O’Connor Memorial Trophy and an invite to the Irish Open and that’s up for grabs again so it’s another big incentive for the homegrown players.”

The tournament begins with a Pro-Am on Wednesday and Play in Pink are the charity partner for the Pro-Am which will see benefits going to the National Breast Cancer Research Institute. At the time of writing, limited spaces are still available in the Pro-Am, but there are additional openings for sponsors wishing to get involved. The basic sponsorship package is to sponsor a hole which comes in at €2,500 and sees the sponsor named on the hole tee board and the company logo and link on the Irish Challenge website, and then there are official supplier, official sponsor and official partner packages, ranging from €5,000 to €20,000.

The weekly Challenge Tour highlights show that is broadcast on Sky Sports for a UK and Ireland market is also broadcast in over 80 countries worldwide, reaching 260 million homes and a golf specific market. The tournament will be held at the K Club from August 1st – 4th and will feature the leading Irish Challenge Tour members including Conor Purcell, Gary Hurley, Mark Power and Dermot McElroy.

You can secure free tickets for each of the tournament days by visiting www.europeantour.com and navigating to the Irish Challenge on the Challenge Tour section of the website. And if previous editions are anything to go by, it’s not to be missed.

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