McKibbin's rise leads to NI Open host role at 21

Tom McKibbin's rise in the golfing world has been further emphasised by him being named tournament host for this year's NI Open European Challenge Tour event.

McKibbin, 21, is touring professional at Galgorm Castle where the event will take place in late July.

The tournament, which returns to the second-tier Challenge Tour calendar after a four-year absence, will go under the banner of 'The NI Open, presented by Tom McKibbin'.

"It's pretty cool to have it this early," said McKibbin, of having his name directly associated with a professional tournament.

"When Gary Henry [the managing director of Galgorm Castle] came to me at the end of the year and suggested the idea, it was something I was very keen about straight away."

Prior commitments during tournament week mean McKibbin won't compete in the event proper, which takes place from 25-28 July, but he will be in action in the pro-am on 23 July.

"I’ll be there playing in the pro-am and I’m sure I’ll come back up on Sunday to see some of the action," added McKibbin, who clinched his first DP World Tour triumph last year with a memorable victory at the European Open in Hamburg.

'I lost five kilograms of weight'

Building on his 2023 breakthrough campaign, McKibbin's consistent 2024 season thus far has included three top-10 finishes in his 11 events - highlighted by a fourth place at the Qatar Masters in February - and only one missed cut.

That was in the Singapore Classic in late March which came in the middle of a three-tournament run where he secured top-10 finishes, at the Jonsson Workwear Open in South Africa and ISPS Handa Championship in Japan.

His first DP World Tour triumph last June shot him up 173 positions in the world rankings to 162nd and after finishing 2023 in 165th spot, he now stands 140th after being as high as 125th in March.

McKibbin, who is in 21st spot in the Race to Dubai standings, revealed that his missed cut in Singapore came during a week when he was suffering a bout of tonsillitis.

"I lost five kilograms of weight so I wasn’t really in much mood to play. I had no energy so I knew that I wasn’t very well," he said.

"Overall this season, I’ve played probably the best golf I’ve played to date. Just very consistent. I’ve been up there most weeks. I’ve been playing lovely."

McKibbin shakes hands with Rory McIlroy after a practice round in Dubai last November
McKibbin (right) says comparisons with fellow Holywood Golf club-man Rory McIlroy have never bothered him [Getty Images]

McKibbin's obvious talents from a young age inevitably led to comparisons with Rory McIlroy, who had also been attached to the Holywood Club a few miles from Belfast.

McIlroy took the teenager under his wing, something McKibbin remains very grateful for, but he insists the connection has never weighed heavily on him.

"I’ve heard it for so long I guess since I’ve been young that I’ve just got used to it," he added.

"I’m so used to it that now it just doesn’t bother me. I don’t really read anything that’s written about me so I couldn’t really care less.

"When I was younger I probably thought it was quite a cool thing to be compared to Rory so it didn’t really put too much pressure on me."

The NI Open's return means the continuation of Galgorm Castle's 14-year run of tournament golf which has included hosting the DP World Tour's Irish Open in 2020 in addition to the men's and women's World Invitational event, which was also sanctioned by the LPGA Tour.