In January 2011 amidst much fanfare Srixon Sports announced that the 2010 US Open champion and Ryder Cup hero Graeme McDowell had signed a multi-year contract to endorse its brand worldwide. It came after the Northern Ireland golfer enjoyed a remarkable fourteen months in which he became the first European to win the US Open for 40 years and holed the key out to win the Ryder Cup for Europa at The Celtic Manor. At the Chevron World Challenge only weeks previous he had seen off Tiger Woods in his own backyard at Sherwood Country Club - in a play-off – to reach number seven in the World Rankings.
Such was the change for both players that on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, it was the first time the two played in the final pair at any tournament since.
As part of the Horizon Sports management stable, led by Conor Ridge and Colin Morrissey, the company were quick to capitalise on the Portrush man's achievements as the switch to the Japanese company was reported to be worth €2.25m per annum. The contract required that McDowell play Srixon clubs and balls and the wedges of the company’s sister company, Cleveland.
He did however retain Callaway FT-3 driver at the time. It was all party of an amazing run of wins that included not only the US Open and Ryder Cup but also the Wales Open and the Andalucia Masters – along with an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s honours list. G-Mac also added his share of the European Tour’s Player of the Year award with Martin Kaymer; the Player of the Year award from both the Association of Golf Writers and the Irish Golf Writers Association and then RTE’s Sports Person of the Year.
At The Masters in 2011 McDowell missed his third cut in four appearances, perhaps weighed down by the burden of his infamous win at Pebble Beach, and so may relish his fifth visit to Augusta National next week some what more. Even if his second place at Bay Hill was five shots adrift of Tiger it is the first sign that Horizon Sports first major signing is regaining some form and stepping out of the shadow of the company’s last signing, fellow Northern Ireland golfer Rory McIlroy.
It was the Holywood golfing prodigy who took on the G-Mac mantle when he strode away with the US Open last summer at Congressional carding a record low score of 268, 16 under par – and a margin of eight shots, In doing so he became the youngest winner to boot. In a year which has seen McIlroy revise his views on playing the PGA Tour, change management company, end his long time relationship with Holly Sweeney and now in a relatively high profile life style with Danish tennis star, Caroline Wozniacki.
The changes best summed up perhaps by the recent photos of Conor Ridge and McIlroy striding into The White House for a major dinner by President Barack Obama.
For the founder of Horizon Sports it has all happened in a period of just over five years, having founded the company in 2005 - after leaving another sports agency in Dublin - to set up on his own.
Under his wing in those days were the Team Ireland Golf Trust’s bets hopes and included David Higgins, Stephen Browne, Justin Kehoe, Noel Fox, Stephen Browne, Michael Hoey and Colm Moriarty. All players eager to get that elusive foothold on the bottom rungs of the European Tour. It was Stephen Browne, who earned his card for 2005, who was the first to get the Ridge pitch and left Andrew “Chubby” Chandler's ISM Group and buying into the new Horizon plan that Irish golfers could be better served by a smaller company geared more towards his needs.
When in 2007 Graeme McDowell became restless at ISM and called Ridge the real opportunity opened up and the chance to become a credible alternative if Horizon delivered.
"Graeme was the first big player to leave Chubby," Ridge says, "and that was a bit of a statement to make. He was in a transition and he'd heard about us. We'd got our name out there. It was a leap of faith on his part for sure. He was leaving one of the biggest companies to go with a small one. But I knew if we could get a big player and help him to be successful, then we were on track."
As has been with the Horizon Sports story McDowell then went on to have a greats first season clocking up his first win three years and then doing well enough to make his Ryder Cup debut at Valhalla in Kentucky.
But then when English golfer Ross Fisher jumped ship from global giant IMG soon afterwards - and went on to win the 3 Irish Open in Killarney in 2010 – the momentum was moving the right way. In fact the previous year Horizon had also convinced the 2009 3 Irish Open winner, Amateur Shane Lowry to sign up, it seemed that Ridge and Morrissey were the only game in town.
But signing Lowry was perhaps the easier part as the company's mission was always geared to helping Irish golfing talent. Which recently saw the addition of Paul Cutler when he joined the professional ranks.
Lest it be all a fairy tale, the reality of sports management is that it can also leave some carnage along the way and not all the hopes of reaching the top are fulfilled by all.
With the taste of the big time following McDowell’s US Open title it was not long before Conor Ridge signed another star, and did so last October when Rory McIlory slipped out of the grasp of Stuart Cage and Chandler. The number 3 in the world at thae time did so in a year when ISM were managing the world Number Lee Westwood, The Masters Champion Charl Schwarztel, fellow South African Louis Ouisthuizen 2010 Open Championship winner, and the 2011 winner, Darren Clarke. It all seemed to the place to be.
But not for McIlroy who has since become world number one.
For the start of the 2011 season Horizon streamlined their management interests releasing number of promising Team Ireland Trust players that had field to make the breakthrough, and the group included long time client Colm Moriarty, Walker Cup player Gareth Shaw, Jonathan Caldwell and three time European Challenge Tour winner David Higgins. The 2009 Brabazon Trophy winner Niall Kearney was also part of the downsizing, as the management company extends its horizon’s to a more global stage – where much of the newer action is in Asia.
Along with the always lucrative PGA Tour. In the wake of this changed focus the likes of Shane Lowry, Gareth Maybin and Michel Hoey had undoubtedly off the slipstream as the Two-Mac’s took up more of the prime time - and made more and more money.
For Lowry the year has all been all about recovering from injury and there are some signs that the golf is staring to fire once again lying in 98th place already in the 2012 European Tour Race to Dubai. For Gareth Maybin a flight of form in 2011 - that almost threatened to take his tour card - seems to have passed with only two missed cuts in six outing so far this season.
However for Shandon Park Golf Club’s very own, Michael Hoey, the season shows bright promise following his win at the Trophee Hassan II in Morocco. So much so that it offered a glimpse of a possible Ryder Cup Place on the horizon for the Belfastman.
But the signs that the boutique nature of Horizon Sports may have changed came when Hoey announced - following his win in Morocco – that he was leaving the Conor Ridge founded management company.
"But with Rory now on board and playing more in the States, their management has changed and altered," Hoey said at the time "He’s going to require more attention and focus than me and I understand that. “
"As it is, Bev [Hoey’s wife] looks after all my personal finance matters so she will continue to do that aspect of my golf. So I have been thinking about it for some time and it’s not as though I am dropping Conor without any notice.
Another talent on the Horizon books, Gareth Maybin, has also moved on and joined Tyrone Howe at Sportology.
First published April 6th 2012