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5 miles N of Coleraine
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Willie Park, Des Giffin
Portstewart Golf Club was founded way back in 1894, but the origins of golf being played here date back even further to 1889. The Strand course is a bit of a hybrid, a mix of the old and the new. Major development took place in the late 1980s when the original Willie Park layout was updated and seven new holes were constructed in the virgin sand dune range called “Thistly Hollow”. The new Strand course, designed by Des Giffin, opened for play in 1992.
And what an exhilarating golf course this is, set amidst imposing, gigantic sand dunes with panoramic views across the Atlantic mouth of Lough Foyle to the Inishowen peninsula beyond.
The Strand is an incredibly challenging and thoroughly enjoyable golf course, with one of the best opening nine holes in golf. The 1st hole is an absolute stunner, one of golf’s most intimidating, a downhill 425-yard par four. There is a plethora of great holes here at Portstewart Golf Club; especially memorable are two of the new par threes, the 3rd and the 6th. The 3rd is a challenging single shotter, measuring 207 yards, whilst the 6th, measuring a mere 140 yards with a plateau green, is also a tough cookie and will stay in the mind for a long time.
Credit must go to the designer because the new holes blend seamlessly with the old holes. Sometimes, when new land is taken in, there is a punctuation between the old and the new. Not so at the Strand.
A golfing trip to Northern Ireland would not be complete without a round on the Strand course. The members here are very warm and welcoming and if you add this course to a round at both Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, you will have played three of the world’s finest links courses, all of which have played host to the Irish Open.
The Strand course at Portstewart is not to be missed. If one is making the journey to Northern Ireland to play the “big two” of the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush and the Championship course at Royal County Down, one should make a stop at Portstewart Golf Club. While the Strand course is below the class of the two Royal courses, it is certainly a championship test of golf as evidenced by the Irish Open coming back for a second time. The members of Portstewart are also blessed with two other courses. The members of these three clubs are very fortunate to not only have a championship golf course but also to have other courses in which to introduce a youngster to the game or another course to play if one wants to just have a bit of fun and practice.
After playing most of the great links of Ireland/Northern Ireland, I am convinced it has better dunes and terrain than their counterparts in Scotland, England or Wales. At The European, Trump International Ireland, Tralee, Ballybunion Old, Royal County Down, Waterville, The Island, Portstewart Stand and Royal Portrush the dunes seem a bit higher, more rolling, and a bit more interesting than their counterparts across the Irish Sea. This is not to take anything away from the links courses in England, Wales and Scotland that are blessed with this terrain, as many of those courses take full advantage of the lovely dunes that they have. It’s a close call when one considers St Enodoc Church, Saunton East, Trump International Scotland, Cruden Bay, etc.
If one questions whether dunes can ever be too high to have a successful routing and “fair” green sites, the answer is no as the rebuttal can be found at holes 2-4 on Portstewart Stand. Willie Park, Jnr and Des Giffin brilliantly found the ground to route the course, taking full advantage of the peaks and valleys amongst the dunes. However, one question has yet to be answered which is whether a golf course can still be great, playable, and memorable if all eighteen holes are built within high dunes such as exists on much of the front nine at Portstewart. There is no course in the world that I can think of (or I have been told of) that has all eighteen holes set amongst hilly dunes. If all eighteen holes were in hilly dunes I do not think the walk would be too difficult since I did not find Pikewood National to be a difficult walk. Instead, the question would be whether the course would continue to be enjoyable and memorable or tilt too much towards repetition and excessive challenge.
After playing Portstewart Strand I reviewed my scorecard to see the notations regarding the holes that I really liked. These included holes 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11 and 15. I did not give all of these holes a full circle or additional notation, but they did register in my mind as being above average. Because seven of those holes are on the front nine, it rivals Royal Aberdeen Balgownie for the high quality of the outward nine.
As brilliant as the routing is on the front nine creating so many interesting and memorable holes, the Strand course feels like it is three pieces – the holes in the dunes, the holes closer to the River Bann and the final three/four holes depending on one’s point of view. Therefore, the course feels slightly disconnected to me. All of the holes are good but one does not get the sense they are playing a consistent course such as at Portmarnock Championhsip, The Island, Trump International Ireland, or The European. In addition, although it is located near the beach, more of the water views are of the River Bann as opposed to the ocean. Maybe it is a function of playing into the very hilly dunes early in the round and transitioning to “flatter” land, but once out of that magical terrain it feels as though one is playing at Gullane #2. It is still a good course, but the excitement drops as you step out of the dunes.
My other two observations are that many of the holes, particularly on the back nine, should add additional bunkers both in the fairway and nearer the green. The bunkers would not serve as additional defense but would provide more definition to the holes from a visual perspective.
The greens have good size for the length of the holes and are cleverly shaped. Some could use additional bunkers but most are well defended by the mounds, valleys, swales and fall-offs near them or by the bunkers. There is good tilt to them and they run smoothly. There could be slightly more undulation to them, particularly on the shorter par 5’s and the mid length par 4’s.
The first hole is a good one, tumbling down as a mid-length par 4 dogleg right with out-of-bounds lurking on the right as well as thick gorse. The strength and direction of the wind is key to this hole, it can be either very difficult or a gentle start. A ridge line of mounds lines the left and the gorse seems to pinch in from the right at the average person’s landing spot for the tee shot. It is open to the green as the hole has no bunkers.
A downhill short and straight par 4 follows hitting from an elevated tee between two high dunes that frame the hole. If you miss left you will likely end up with a very difficult second from the side of a dune, possibly with a blind second, as there is a series of dunes on the left that continue beyond the green. The big hitters might try to drive the green and can make anywhere from a 2 to a 7. The green sits uphill and is well defended with a high dune hard to the left, a steep fall off back down the fairway for any shot not finding the green, and a well-placed bunker on the front right.
A long downhill par 3 from the top of a dune is next with a slanted green right to left, back to front. I do not rate this hole in the same quality of the other holes simply because one has a very high probability of saving par if they miss the green.
One of my favorite holes on the golf course is the longer par 5 fourth hole which tumbles down from the elevated tee until its conclusion, framed by thistles and mounds on either side, as it narrows and twists and turns. It requires a tee shot to carry about 170-220 yards to reach the fairway. There are grass and sand bunkers near the front right of the green. There is a lovely view of the ocean and river standing on the green, which has a bit of an opening and fall off back left which is where you do not want to leave one’s ball.
The fifth hole is the number one index on the golf course, a long par 4 playing again from an elevated tee asking for a tee shot over a valley and higher dune before reaching the fairway. This hole has the first real view of the river Bann. The green is beautifully situated behind two dunes of similar size on each side, then fall offs in front and more steeply both left and right of the green. Dunes surrounded the entire back of the green. The green has no bunkers and does not need them. There are trenches pretty far on the right side of the fairway, left over from its use as a WWII fairing range. It is a brilliant golf hole.
The mid-length par 3 comes next. The green is tiny, tilted right to left and is elevated with steep fall offs on all sides and two bunkers framing the front. Miss this green and it is very hard to judge where to land the pitch as your tee shot could go far enough way to be a blind shot. For a short par 3, it is very well conceived.
The short par 5 seventh hole is rated the second easiest on the golf course. It is wonderfully routed between smaller dunes as it gently rises to its finish. There is a valley to the right as you near the green but it is not overly penal. The hole has no bunkers but I felt it could use 5-6 to add some defense to offset the shortage of the hole and the relative ease of the tee shot.
The eighth is either a long par 4 or medium length depending on the tee chosen. From another elevated tee the first shot is awkward, as the fairway is hidden on the left by a large dune and so it appears to angle right to left. Behind the large dune on the left is a series of dips and valleys as the hole turns left. Those large dunes continue on the left all the way to the back of the green. The green has four bunkers. It is a brilliant golf hole and will challenge players of all abilities.
A short par 4 closes out an excellent front nine. From another elevated tee one has to avoid a valley and large dune on the right. If the tee shot can carry a slight ridge then one can be rewarded with an additional 25 yards of roll. The green has no bunkers but has mounds on the right and fall offs front and left. The green location is very attractive.
The tenth brings an end to playing either through or alongside higher dunes. You are playing towards the river on this slight dogleg right. The fairway has three bunkers but on this hole you can go miss right or left and still have a reasonable approach shot. The green is open with no bunkers. I felt this hole could use additional defense through more bunkers but very much liked the visual look of it.
The eleventh is the same length as the tenth and has the same shape to it. The difference from the ninth is that the tenth has a series of fairway bunkers down the left size, shrinking in one’s eye the size of the landing zone for the tee shot. The green once again has no bunkers but has a steep falloff front and especially left with a smaller run out behind the green. It is a lovely and challenging hole.
From another elevated tee the mid length par 3 twelfth has a lovely view of the River Baan. The hole is defended though five well placed bunkers at another green perched on a shelf with run offs on all sides. It is the easiest hole on the golf course but I am willing to bet there are almost as many bogies as pars.
The easy par 5 thirteen plays parallel to the River Bann and is possibly the flattest hole on the golf course. You have now been out of the dunes for awhile and for me I start to forget what I played through to get to this hole. This hole has bunkers to consider on the approach shot and four surrounding the long green but I felt it needed bunkers to challenge the tee shot as well as a more undulating green.
Another short par 5 comes next with the defense being the bunkers near the green. While there is a series of small valleys and mounds on the left side of the fairway, I felt there should be more defense for the tee shot. It is one of the better green sites as it is surrounded by small mounds encircling all but the entrance to another flattish green.
My favorite hole on the back nine is the fifteenth, a long par 3 that has five bunkers at the front and flanking the right side. There is a little dip before the front of the green. It is a challenging hole, yet is rated index 14.
An uphill tee shot awaits one on the sixteenth as you head back towards the clubhouse. It has a generous fairway and missing it to the right does not really cause much consternation. The green has a nice combination of swales and two bunkers fronting the relatively flat green. Depending on one’s round, you might not want to play the final two holes since you are essentially at the clubhouse.
The seventeenth is a slightly longer par 4 playing parallel to the sixteenth but going away from the fairway. It was on this hole two groups behind us that a member of the club acting as a caddie would have a heart attack as he walked up onto the green and pass away despite a doctor being in his group. Is there a better way for a golfer to go other than playing? The green is a very tricky one with severe fall offs in front and a deep valley to the left. The left side of the green is cut almost like a large tire so sharply is the edge of it.
The eighteenth is a long par 4 finishing right in front of the clubhouse. This hole has what many of the holes are missing on the back nine – good fairway bunkering with three left and two on the right. There is another bunker short of the green on the right and five more at the long green. It is a nice finish to the round and for many it would be considered a fine golf hole to end a very good golf course.
While I have perhaps as many as eight other courses to play in Ireland where I have heard consistently good things, Portstewart Strand fits comfortably in my top ten for Ireland/Northern Ireland. If additional bunkers were added and more interesting undulations on the green surfaces, there is the possibility it could jump one or two spots. It is a golf course that should be played a couple times in one’s life, particularly since it is so close to Royal Portrush and Castlerock. One will certainly remember the front nine.
The Strand course covers some diverse terrain with the first ten holes set in some of the largest dunes in golf.
These holes are very dramatic, with tight winding fairways bordered by acres of long marram grass, blind shots, and some interesting greens tucked into the dunes.
Thereafter the course turns to the riverside where the golf is still entertaining, quality golf – but a little more open and visible and with less elevation change.
The last 3 holes are a strong test of golf, but less interesting, running parallel back and forth to finish in front of the rather large clubhouse which is practical rather than pretty.
Increasingly Ireland is being recognised as one of THE premier golfing destinations in the world, and Northern Ireland is at the forefront, with Royal County Down and Royal Portrush the flag bearers.
But miss Portstewart at your peril.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
Portstewart is a lovely course, in a lovely setting with lovely holes. Having read reviews I was fully expecting the excitement of the front nine and the lesser back nine, but like I felt at Hindhead I actually thoroughly enjoyed both nines. Unfortunately playing in the March the 2nd and 3rd were closed, which was a shame as the 2nd looked a cracker. There are too many holes to mention and playing with 40mph gusts made it very hard. I am just going to note a few of holes that I enjoyed. 4 is all about placing the ball in the right place. Don’t try for 2 unless your are on it. 5 is lovely, place the tee shot and then go for the green. 8 is a great hole, take a bit of the hill and get your ball down to the lowest level. On the back 9 just enjoy it is a run of really good holes I personally really liked 11 and 16.
The round for us was not about scoring but just trying to keep the ball in play and maybe make a few pars. I would love to play again in the summer with less wind and be on my game. I can guarantee one thing, bring your game and you will walk off with a massive smile on your face.
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.
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 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.
The course 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.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Forget Machrihanish (I say that tongue in cheek), this golf course has the most dramatic and panoramic first tee shot in golf. My eyes were wide open staring around me from that elevated platform.
The front nine is carved out of the largest dunes I’ve seen. Each hole is a spectacular experience throughout an amphitheater of sand. The dunes frame the holes beautifully and consistently dare you to hit heroic shots.
The second hole plays from an elevated tee, to a multi-tier fairway and back up to an elevated green perched among the dunes. I thought it was glorious, and really fun to execute such demanding shots. The course tumbles and winds its way up and over massive ridges, around and over turbulent dune structures, and essentially turns you around 8 times before you get half way. I must give a shout out to the par 4 8th hole. A 220-yard tee shot downhill is all that is required to position your ball on a large platform before you make a 90 degree left turn to face a fabulous downhill approach shot into a well-protected green. The dunes around you are that of a Hollywood movie set.
The back nine is another story all together, and it naturally falls victim when compared to the front side. When you get to the 7th green, you get a glimpse of the back nine, which I initially thought was the River course given how completely flat and different it looked.
On the back nine, there are two par 5s back to back that essentially play in the same direction and are roughly the same length. Additionally, the routing of the closing stretch feels really awkward. The 16th hole is a very strong hole that brings you back to the clubhouse. Then the 17th plays back away from the house, and the 18th turns around and brings you back. They are three parallel holes sharing the same plot of land, which some say is anticlimactic. It is one of the greatest clubs in the country, with wonderful history and memorable dunes.
As previous reviews have said, the front 9 here is simply stunning; carved out through some huge dunes, it is a fantastic test of golf but also great on the eye. The 2nd being the best example of both. The back 9 presents a different but equally pleasing challenge. The course meanders down the the river and offers some lovely holes, with the 11th and new look 14th both very strong. 17 and 18 make a good finish and require two good hits to make the green. Definitely worth a visit and likely to get even more attention after July this year.
Portstewart is a sporty links which should be included on an itinerary to the North Coast. As most reviewers have already said, the front 9 are thrilling. Many of these holes are truly memorable, from the 1st, where you hit down, down into a dogleg right with beautiful views from the tee of the beach and the links below you. The second is reminiscent of Enniscrone, with a huge dune all along the left and an ever-slimmer fairway to the right. It contines like this for 10 holes or so until you get out to the flatter riverside holes, which are still proper links, just a slightly different character than the front. There are some pushed up greens which add to the difficulty on a couple of the par 3's and the 17th where the approach to the green is truly intimidating.
Portrush may be the 'better' course, but Portstewart is a whole lot of fun, just don't expect bulldoze-flat fairways and accept the odd random bounce.
The kind of place you'd be happy to play again and again as I imagine no two rounds around here would be the same.
The front 9 is fabulous with hole after hole exhibiting wonderful duneland. The first hole sets the tone and holes 2, 4, 5, 6 & 8 standout. The back 9 is not so “wow” but contains many decent holes. The 13th and 14th are the weaker holes (as they have a more inland feel) but the course finishes well from 16 in. A very enjoyable course with some memorable holes.