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 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.
I can’t believe it’s just over nine years since I last played here. The biggest change in that time is undoubtedly the construction of an enormous new clubhouse, which is one of the swankiest golfing premises I’ve ever set foot in – there can be no doubt that Portstewart now has facilities befitting one of the Top 100 courses in Great Britain & Ireland.
Everybody mentions the excellence of the front nine and rightly so as it’s a sensational collection of golf holes. The par threes at 3 and 6 are especially good, along with the strongest hole on the card, the 449-yard 5th, where the fairway narrows considerably as it approaches a demanding two-tiered green.
The 4th tee box in the dunes behind the 3rd green has also just been upgraded (large swathes of invasive buckthorn bushes have been removed, painstakingly replaced with hand sown marram grass) so it's good to see the club continue to develop the landscape around this fantastic stretch of holes.
The inward half, played around the periphery of the dune system, is bound to suffer in comparison to what’s gone before because the fairways unfortunately occupy less spectacular terrain. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to keep you engaged as you head for home.
In particular, the 11th is a terrific par four, with an elevated green that’s fronted by a severe dip in front of the putting surface and this terrific hole is then followed by the short par three 12th, which plunges sharply downhill to a green that’s protected by a nest of pot bunkers on the right hand side.
The round concludes with three demanding par fours (index 6, 2 and 8) that are routed across the tumbling high ground next to the clubhouse so the golfing challenge at Portstewart is sustained right to the very end. It’s easy to see why the Strand layout remains one of the mainstay venues in the elite North & West Coast Links of Ireland portfolio and it's not to be missed from any golfing itinerary when visiting Northern Ireland.
I came back on Monday when the parking was in a sort of revolution as they were filming “Game of Thrones” on the nearby beach. It was full of trucks and the crew was all around the place. Now the day was sunny and breezy, a perfect day to play. We have to start at the Club House, which is modern but elevated above all the place and gives you a full sight of almost all the place and the beach. People in the Club were very warm and the caddies for the group were all members of the Club. They do it for fun and really enjoy sharing the knowledge of the course with visitors.
The front 9 are the nicest piece of land we had in the entire trip, going around inmense dunes with views of the beach, Ocean and in some point on a clear day you can see Ballyliffin on the other side of the Bay. Although the course is playable, any big mistake will be big numbers, no chance of getting safe after a bad shot. Hole #1 is a downhill dog leg to the right par 4 where finding fairway is 90% of the job done. Then #2 from an elevated tee downhill and then and upright second shot and #3 is a long and tough par 3. Holes #4 and #5 are great, tough and nice, before arriving to extremely nice and short par 3 6th where a miss will be a disaster, it is hard to get back to this elevated green. Then reachable par 5 7th gives you a nice birdie chance but do not miss the second shot on any side, although from the right there is some kind of recovery. Then 8th and 9th are two great 4s, where placing the tee shot is the real clue to have a birdie chance.
After a nice beer at the Half Way House, get ready for some different holes, more links style with less level changes and parallel to the River. Par 5 14th is a great one, before the last three 4s finishing where score is not easy. It is a good test, a fun place and a very nice setting, I have to say that it is not at the level of Royal County Down and Royal Portrush but it is a must, you have to come and enjoy it. It hosted The Amateur in 2014 and the R&A will not make the event on a bad course! A big star to Club Authorities, I was treated as a Member both days and everyone there makes you feel at Home. If you are off to Northern Ireland, do not forget to play here.