Our last game in Ireland on this trip was reserved for Portstewart. I hadn't seen the course since 2009 and was keen to return. My memory of the front nine as a set of holes that could be latched onto Carne without one noticing any difference in design principles was accurate. It is without doubt one of the wildest rides one can have playing golf. Some years ago, one of the principals of the club, Des Griffin, was charged with designing seven new holes in huge dunes and he chose to leave what he could to mother nature. This part of the course is so different from the practiced hand of Colt at nearby Portrush that it is almost like a kick in the head. With all the modern design formulas and pat design methods we tend to forget that at one time golf used to be more like the front nine of Portstewart. That isn't to say a more experienced archie couldn't have created a dramatic set of holes while still making them more playable than the current version, but it is refreshing to cast an eye over wild ground knowing the designer was probably flying by the seat of his pants and with a very small budget.
Despite its faults, I think Portstewart is a success and a decent degree of credit must go to the back nine as well. The land is certainly less rambunctious, but there are several fine holes which would compliment the best of courses. Finally, while generally not terribly creative with some notable exceptions, the greens were in excellent condition. They were firm and running at a proper speed of 9-10 (these days, I find links usually running at 7ish) which made putting and chipping a challenge. The greens didn't look all that great, but they ran as well as at Nairn and Kiawah - the best conditioned sets of greens I have seen in a long time.
The opener is truly memorable. The Strand is to the right and the fairway to left. One must keep left for a view of the green on the approach. The hole is let down slightly by the extreme flatness of the green, but this is still a great intro to Portstewart. The mass of gorse on the right was cleared.
If possible, the 2nd kicks it up a gear or two with a crazy looking hole that doesn't seem to have much room to swing away. Flat bellies can reach the plateau short of the right green-side bunker, but the rest of us have to decide to layup or try to run one up to or past the narrow left side of the fairway.
I usually find drop shot short holes to be among the least interesting type of par 3. At least Portstewart's 3rd has the interesting take of not wanting to be long as the chip/putt back is tricky. It was immediately apparent that all the gorse to the rear of the green was cleared. Before and after.
4 is a very difficult three-shotter which snakes its way through the dunes. Once again, gorse on the right was cleared. There used to be an asphalt path in the foreground that is no longer. It is great the club is starting to embrace the idea of visual minimalism.
One can see the huge false front making this approach very dicey. The player has to carry the centre of the green or bail a bit left, from where its a tough two putt.
We now turn back and face the brutal 5th. This has to be one of the hardest par 4s I have ever encountered. All seems well from the tee. This photo is forward of the tee on the left dune.
A long drive can still leave 200ish yard approach. This is a huge green of some 55 yards in length and the flag was ALL the way back in true sucker position. From here one can see the problems posed for the guy who can't reach in two.
The uphill nature of the approach is more evident when looking back at the tee.
We turn once again to play a great little par 3. Nothing but a distance control shot will do as the green falls away on three sides. I really like how the green is peninsula-like as it is attached to the dune. I suspect the dune was topped on the left side to create the green. The surface is very tricky for those who cheat a bit right hoping for some saving grace from the dune as it slopes toward the front. I am not sure the bunkers add anything to the design unless stopping balls from running to valley floor is the goal.
A look at the green from on high.
The weather gets serious around Portstewart.
The 7th is a reachable par 5 if one wants to take on the risks off the tee and the approach. An odd hole; the 8th is blind off the tee and turns about 90 degrees to the left. One can take on the corner, but I am not sure much advantage is gained as bunkers and harsh rough out right await the less than perfect strike. This green is one of the notable exceptions and has a lot of undulations.
The bunkering on this hole doesn't look the part. In truth, if possible, Portstewart is the sort of terrain which would suit more natural style bunkers. The pots often look out of place.
The viewer is probably wondering how playable this course is in a 25mph wind....it is very harsh indeed. The course is fairly long from the daily tees, some 6600 yards, the greens are quick, the driving and approaching is exacting. I think Portstewart is every bit as difficult as Portrush.
The 9th is another demanding drive requiring a bit of shape to the right or a layup.
From wedge range it is possible to see the typical green at Portstewart. Rather than undulations, the greens tend to be tilted making putting/chipping from the high sides difficult.
The back 9 starts with an interesting hole which leads to less interesting land down by the River Bann. Its hard to figure where to place a drive for the humpty bumpty approach to a front to back running green. Details; the black path is bad enough, but why place a rubbish bin there?
The grand golf continues on the 11th. The land pushes shots toward the bunkers and blind approach positions.
I like the drive, but the approach makes the hole. The green is very similar to #5.
Behind the green.
Despite the somewhat unforgiving nature of some shots, my biggest criticism of the course are the par 3s. Not much imagination went into the design of a few of them.
The three-shot 13th starts out well, but finishes rather tamely on over-bunkered flat land. #14 takes us back to proper links and a tumbling par 5 which is great fun. I may be wrong, but I think the tee shot has been changed. It seems more enclosed in dunes now. The second half of the hole still plays over rollicking terrain.
Yet another drop shotter - heavy sigh.
A side view.
The 16th is a cracker! It plays longer than its 389 yards and will likely have a blind second. Even from well in front of the driving zone the green is hard to see. Perhaps its that brand new clubhouse which distracts us! It is a true gin palace and not a little ott. Even so, it is far better than what existed previously and offers delicious views of the course.
We are greeted with another blind drive for 17. Once cresting the hill the volcano green is on display.
On a lightly bunkered course I believe the 18th is the only hole with bunkers protecting both sides of the fairway - that has to be a good thing! As with a great many holes, our visuals are messed with. It is problematic to get a handle on how far a tee shot will go because of the uphill/downhill nature of the terrain. Other than the wind, this may be Portstewart's greatest asset. The approach is very demanding due to the green running away from the fairway and the sheer length into the wind.
That then is Portstewart. Blessed with some of the best dunes in golf and a possessor of the problems that can come with such wild land. Even with the three or four holes which are less than what they could be, I have to say I have a lot of time for the course. The unpredictable nature of the game is well in evidence at Portstewart, much like it is at Carne. I do believe the course is a bit unforgiving in the wind and especially tough for high cappers, but I thought that about much of Portrush. For some reason Portrush gets a pass as a "championship" course while Portstewart is often deemed too difficult for holiday golf. To me, its all just golf and we should give credit where credit is due. 1* 2022
As an aside, Portstewart has three courses. The course adjacent to the back nine of the Strand (main course) looked to have been worked on. It's much flatter than the Strand, but there could be some interesting stuff.
I think my age is starting to tell on these links trips. More and more I find myself seeking out forward tees and cozy bars. It may be surprising, but my favourite of the three courses on this trip is the least heralded, Portrush Valley Links. It isn't a world class course (whatever that may mean), particularly unique or necessarily one of the courses one would seek out on a trip to the area, so I wouldn't give it a star. It is, however, plenty good enough for the likes of me and sums up what I like best about golf; affordable green fees, good golf terrain with some hard and easy shots, but most of all, interesting shots. Holes like the 5th of VL are why I enjoy the game and find myself seeking out the second and third tier courses of GB&I. This is where my future lies in the game.