Portstewart Golf Club
Designer: Willie Park Jr., Des Giffin
If Major Haversham was to ask our first-time visitors to Portstewart to approximate the age of the Strand course, most would likely presume that it was at least 100 years old. Generally a safe assumption in this part of the world, but at Portstewart it’s only half right.
Golf arrived to this corner of Northern Ireland’s coast in the 1890’s in the form of a rudimentary 9-hole course that measured a mere 1500 yards. The club quickly outgrew their humble ground and in 1908 welcomed a new 18-hole course on the Strand links. Willie Park, Jr. soon arrived for a redesign and put to use the talents that served him well at places like Sunningdale and Maidstone. The two-time Open champion’s layout meandered over a relatively flat and uninteresting piece of land, yet the property next door was a magnificent stretch of links that was littered with towering sandhills. For nearly a century, the members of Portstewart played past those dunes and dreamed of the possibilities.
Fast forward to the 1980’s, that alluring piece of neighboring property finally came up for sale and Portstewart wasted no time in securing the deed. The club tapped a member and local school teacher, Des Giffin, to incorporate the newly acquired property, known as Thistly Hollow, into its course. To the bewilderment of every professional golf course architect of the day, the end result was a stroke of brilliance.
Portstewart had long been known for its spectacular 1st hole; an outstanding par-4 that dives around the beachfront dunes. Now, thanks to the new property and their school-teacher architect, the club had 7 more just like it. The 2nd through 8th holes twist and turn their way through the sandhills in dramatic fashion, and are sure to produce the most vivid memories of the day. The par-4 5th hole is perhaps the best example, while the tiny target at the par-3 6th does a fine job of living up to its name: “Five Penny Piece.”
After a front-9 that is filled with one highlight after another, the inward side at Portstewart is often criticised as a bit of a let down. There is no doubt that the back-9 plays over less dramatic ground, yet the original Willie Park holes are filled with plenty of interest if one is willing to look for it. The rumpled terrain and shelf-top greens are a delightful throwback to another era, and it’s likely that most of the holes would never be built today. Still, the argument that Portstewart is a tale of two 9’s does hold some merit.
For the entirety of its existence, Portstewart has lived in the shadow of its colleague down the road at Portrush. The club is slowly gaining the attention of golfers across the globe, however, and the limelight of hosting the 2017 Irish Open will only reinforce that fact. We find Portstewart to be a worthy complement to its royal neighbor, with the front-9 alone making the journey across the pond entirely worthwhile.
Major Basil Haversham, OBE
Your guide to the greatest golf holidays in Ireland
Independent travellers:Take the A2 from Portrush and continue through the Portstewart high street along the seafront. Turn right for “The Strand” and the clubhouse will be on your left. Report to the professional’s shop.