Portstewart sometimes gets a bad rap for having just nine good holes (the front nine) along with an inferior back-nine. Now, this is true to a certain extent but I’d like to clarify and put it into context by saying that the front nine is rivetingly magnificent and the inward half still exceptionally good.
Having originally been founded in 1894 then redesigned by Willie Park Jnr in the 1920’s the Strand Links received its greatest makeover with the purchase of duneland known as “Thistly Hollow” in 1986. The seven new holes (2 thru to 8) were created by a member of the club, Des Giffin, who whilst knowledgeable on the subject was entirely inexperienced in golf course design.
These new holes provide some big dune golf over natural, rugged linksland in what is a tempestuous passage of golf. They are indeed superb and tagged alongside the glorious opening hole, played from a lofty tee to a fairway far below, and the rising ninth, with a steep drop-off at the front, you undoubtedly have one of the best and wildest nine holes of golf on the planet. A member of over 50-years, who caddied for one of our group, informed me that two more holes, located in the dunes, are currently in the pipeline.
The tee-shot on the first is one of the most enjoyable in golf for sure. On a fine day you will see a line of cars parked along The Strand – a near two-mile stretch of sandy beach – and steep dunes to the right which were a shooting location for a scene from Game of Thrones.
If you are a dune-junkie you will be in golfing heaven on the front-nine. Each hole either plays through, round or over the dunes and the green locations are superb. The fairways, often of which you are only granted a slither from the tee, are equally undulating and tie in nicely with everything else.
The 2nd is a particularly fine hole with just a glimpse of the split-level fairway before you play up to a shelf green nestled in the dunes. The 4th is a wonderful par-five through a natural valley whilst the green at the 5th is a sight to behold; large, undulating and located superbly. The diddy 6th gives us a break from big-hitting but the upturned saucer nature of the green requires an accurate short-iron. The long 7th also has a wonderful green location with a precarious narrow entrance and a treacherous drop-off to the right. Meanwhile, the 8th is a sharp 90-degree dog-leg with a green falling off the side of a dune and one of the more undulating putting surfaces.
The front-side at Portstewart is quirk on a big scale and something absolutely special. Each hole is completely unique and Giffin, a local schoolteacher, was probably in the wrong profession at the time because the routing and design is superb.
The back-nine makes a somewhat inauspicious start with a green complex at the 10th which is rather uninspiring but the course quickly recovers and whilst we have mostly left the towering sandhills behind us, and now play on relatively flatter ground close to the River Bann, the terrain is still good for golf and there are some wonderful holes over sweetly undulating ground.
The round quickly recovers at the excellent 11th and although the short 12th and the subsequent back-to-back par-fives are not the greatest they are solid holes, especially the latter. What is not in doubt are the finishing four holes and the test they provide. The 15th is a bigger version of the irresistible 6th whilst the final three holes all top the 400-yard mark and with the daunting pulpit green at the 17th make for a championship finish; one that Jon Rahm eased through on his way to victory in the 2017 Irish Open.
From the tee Portstewart is challenging but infinitely playable and certainly not unfair. Into the greens it is a highly demanding course. You only have to be a little bit off with your iron play to suffer some serious consequences. It can at times be a cruel master.
At Portstewart you mostly play through mighty dunes to raised greens; some benched into the actual dunes, others raised with steep drop-offs but all with deep pot bunkers waiting to gather even just a slightly wayward approach. Most of the greens have a slant and tie in well with their surrounds. I personally love these types of holes… my only criticism is that there are perhaps too many here…. too much of a good thing!
The course (par 72, 7,118-yards) overall doesn’t cut the same mustard as neighbouring Portrush or Royal County Down, a couple of hours away at Newcastle, but it is a comfortable third (ahead of Castlerock) in Northern Ireland and at times does match the exceedingly high quality of the top two.
There are two other courses attached to Portstewart; the Riverside and the Old Course. In truth neither is worth going out of your way to play unless you are desperate for a game of golf in which case they serve a purpose.
Read the review of Portstewart (Riverside) here.
Read the review of Portstewart (Old) here.