It’s the fourth ranking event of the 2020/21 campaign this week and the second from the Home Nations series.
The Northern Ireland Open gets under way on Monday with defending champion Judd Trump and world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan among the star names in the draw.
Originally scheduled to take place at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, this year’s edition will instead unfortunately be played at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a slightly surreal situation to be in, especially as the tournament won’t even be staged in its own region, but curtailing travel remains the safest and most logical option available to the World Snooker Tour at present.
Prize, History, and Format
The last two finals in the tournament have been contested between rivals O’Sullivan and Trump, with the current world number one emerging with the Alex Higgins Trophy on both occasions courtesy of 9-7 victories.
Top seed Trump faces Gerard Greene in the first round with Ronnie O’Sullivan launching his bid for a 38th career ranking event title against Jamie O’Neill.
As they are on opposite sides of the Northern Ireland Open draw, there is a possibility that the duo could clash in the title-deciding fixture for a third consecutive year.
The other two former winners of the event are Marks King and Williams, who each sealed emotional triumphs in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
King’s 9-8 success in the inaugural staging represented his maiden ranking glory, while a similar deciding-frame victory for Williams twelve months later paved the way for a remarkable run of form that culminated in his third World Championship triumph at the Crucible Theatre.
The Northern Ireland Open follows the same format as all the Home Nations events, with best-of-seven fixtures for the first four rounds, nine and eleven frames required for the quarter and semi-finals respectively, before a 17-frame final determines the champion.
A cheque worth £70,000 is on offer for the winner, but the previous £1 million bonus that was available for capturing all four Home Nations events in the same season has been withdrawn.
The Northern Ireland Open Draw
As usual, Trump and O’Sullivan will be the heavy favourites to orchestrate their way through the rounds and feature prominently at the business end.
However, it’s always difficult to predict the outcome of these competitions – particularly the early stages which are completed at a frenetic pace.
The likes of Mark Selby, Kyren Wilson, and Antrim’s Mark Allen have been winners on the tour this term already, while Trump of course triumphed in the English Open last month to kick start the Home Nations campaign.
They will all hope to contend for silverware again, but challenges will also be mounted by the other regular sources such as Neil Robertson, John Higgins, and Shaun Murphy.
The first section of the event is as much about jostling for position as it is about playing well, with the aim of getting to the last eight by any means necessary before realistically entertaining any serious ideas of walking away with the trophy raised aloft on Sunday.
A couple of the interesting opening-round encounters include Allen’s bout with Anthony Hamilton and European Masters runner-up Martin Gould’s tie against the improving Jamie Clarke.
The match of the last 128 is arguably Murphy’s with Ryan Day, while there’s an intriguing battle between young pair Aaron Hill and Jackson Page – winners of the last four European Under-18 and last two European Under-21 Championships between them.