If there’s a better view from a 1st tee anywhere on earth, it will have to go some to top The Strand at Portstewart Golf Club.
A scorching summer’s day has meandered into a lazy afternoon and the beach which sits to the right of the opening hole at Portstewart, is still bustling with surfers, day trippers and families on holiday. The incredible Strand Beach comes into view as I snake along the road which takes me from the centre of this bustling harbour town out towards the towering dunes, which are home to its world famous golf course.
As I walk towards the clubhouse a woman called Lisa, who I’ve never met before, introduces herself and asks if I know where I’m going. I explain I’m here for the first time and she grabs be my the arm and says “you must come and see this, come with me.”
We walk up the slope towards the 1st tee, passing the sign which reads simply, ‘Strand Course’. Lisa is bursting with a palpable pride. “We’ve not had the best summer but today is just amazing, you’re so lucky!” As we reach the tee she extends a pointed finger to and says, “just take a look at that!”
She’s right, it’s a truly breathtaking sight. Strand Beach, after which this course is named, is the place to be today as my eyes scan across the sand. Beyond the expanse of beach is the mouth of the River Bann and that of Lough Foyle, with the hills of the Inishowen Peninsula beyond. As I bring my gaze back to the course, the incredible dunes which frame the front 9 are so vast that I have to look twice to confirm there are, indeed, tees, greens and fluttering flags in among them. It’s really is quite a setting.
Lisa leads me back to the pro-shop and arranges a bucket of balls for the turf range and then bids me farewell. It’s the perfect introduction to Portstewart Golf Club and if I didn’t already I am grateful both to be here and on a day when the weather is as it is.
That’s only heightened as I walk through the vast, modern clubhouse and amid the trophies and photographs, I spot a letter from John Rahm, who won the Irish Open by six shots here in 2017. “Your course is simply outstanding,” it reads. “I just love it”.
It was my turn. The biggest challenge on the 1st tee is, quite frankly, not to be distracted by the panoramic beauty of it all. It’s a demanding shot which calls for a good drive over the corner of a dog-leg right and onto a fairway some 100 feet below. If you can find the short stuff then the green awaits, nestled among the dunes 420 yards away. If you can’t – you may not see your ball again.
As I scamper down the perilous slope from tee to fairway, I spot a man in the right rough with a lone golf club and pockets full of golf balls. We’ll come back to him a little later. For now, though the dunes awaited and what many had told me was one of the great front 9s on the island of Ireland. By the time I reached the 1st green, it was clear I was in the heart of what makes Portstewart Golf Club so special. The dunes are impossibly tall in this corner of the golf course, dwarfing the likes of Ballybunion, Lahinch, Doonbeg and others. And yet they were not part of the golf course until the 1990s, when Des Griffin, member, greens convenor and former maths teacher to Portrush-local Graeme McDowell, explored the 51 acres of wild links-land the club had bought in 1981.
What he created was seven holes of wild simplicity, that you’d be forgiven for thinking had been there since time was time. The way the 2nd hole, a short par-4 know as ‘Devil’s Hill’, has been tucked into the side of a vast sand dune, is a brilliant piece of design and requires total accuracy from both the tee and the fairway if you are to come away with a par or anything better. There’s little room for error. Anything left will require a devil of a climb to find your ball from the dune. The locals call this area of dunes ‘Thirsty Hollow’ – if the local brew is golf balls, then these wild grasses are certainly thirsty for more.
The front 9 was every bit as wonderful as everyone said it would be, with the 5th, known as ‘Rifle Range’, because of its use for shooting practice during the Second World War, another highlight. The Strand Course at Portstewart Golf Club is often described as a course of two 9s, with the front 9 quite rightly attracting widespread acclaim and the back nine often reduced to something a of a footnote. There was certainly a part of me who expected the front 9 to be what it was and the back 9 to be a disappointment. It was nothing of the sort, it was certainly stronger than I thought it was going to be and were it to be played at almost any other course in the land it would not be seen as the poor relation. Throughout, the undulating, sometimes plunging fairways are a feature, as are the pot bunkers. The scenery is something else with the Bann estuary on one side and the North Atlantic on the other. The back 9 is certainly a reflection of the relatively recent past at Portstewart but the origins lay elsewhere.
There are three courses at Portstewart Golf Club, which dates back to 1894 with the much loved Old Course, which is now detached from the club itself on the Portmore Road to Portrush. The opening 8 holes are strung out along the coastline with the rest coming back on the town side. As we drive past there are locals, families and holidaymakers enjoying the old links. Back at the clubhouse, the Riverside Course is the third 18 hole course at Portstewart and, as the name suggests, meanders along the banks of the River Bann and presents a slightly less fierce challenge than The Strand, measuring just 5,725 yards. Next time, maybe.
My time on The Strand was drawing to a close and the gentleman who I had spotted to the right of the 1st hole was walking back up the hill to the clubhouse, just as I am. He introduces himself with an outstretched hand. “Hi there, I’m John O’Kane.” John is 84 years old. “I am on my own these days,” he says “so this helps me to get out of the house. I found lots of balls down there, plenty of Pro-V1s!” he says with a chuckle. John has been a member of Portstewart Golf Club for 53 years, he tells me. A scratch golfer in his pomp, John’s love of the game endures, even if his swing is a little slower these days. Although he tells me that he has just bought a new Taylor Made Stealth Driver and points down the 1st fairway as he tells me he hit a driver, 7-iron to the 1st green from the back tees on Saturday.
We share stories and jokes. In turns out he played with a 14-year-old Shane Lowry in an amateur event. “He was something else,” he says. “Even then.” I tell him we’re at the Me & Mrs Jones hotel in Portstewart and he recommends a few good places to eat. Then we shake hands and go our separate ways. I shout to him to keep playing well and he says he will, adding “I’ll swing ’til I drop!” I believe him too. Those are the little moments you savour on the road, particularly in Ireland. Magic.
Speaking of which, the magic of Portstewart Golf Club hits you straight between the eyes from the moment you step onto the 1st tee and doesn’t relent until long after you drive back along the coastal road towards this charming town. It’s not hard to see why Portstewart is considered one of Northern Ireland’s very best, alongside Royal Portrush and Royal County Down. The scale of the place is jaw-dropping and the drama and jeopardy that comes into play as you meander through those dunes is just unforgettable.