Portstewart’s unique terrain to captivate European Tour players

Course will demand strategy and creative shot-making – a learning curve for many awaits

Nowhere on the European Tour all season will players experience the like of what awaits at the DDF Irish Open: this is virgin terrain, a first visit to a links whose front nine holes meanders its way through towering sand hills and dunes here at Portstewart. A hidden gem has been unearthed and polished, to be savoured.

And as the grey clouds on Tuesday hovered overhead and leaked persistent rain, players used the practice round to familiarise themselves with the nooks and crannies of the course’s impressive bunker system, of fairways that twist one way and another, and of the greens that are nestled in the hills as if placed there by mother nature.

For the majority of players, this is a learning curve conducted from scratch. For some, there’s some insider knowledge. Paul Dunne and Jon Rahm, for example, played the Strand Course when it was used as a strokeplay qualifying venue for the British Amateur in 2014.

And, then, there is Graeme McDowell, who grew up in nearby Portrush but who played “a lot” here because it was used for many schools tournaments.


Intriguingly, it was one of McDowell’s former maths teachers, Des Griffin, a club member and greens convenor at Portstewart, who designed the seven holes through the dunes which now comprise the front nine.

Aesthetic run of holes

That wild linksland, 50 acres of it, was bought by the club for £17,500 in 1981 and later developed, in 1988, into the holes that work one way and another through the dunes; the stretch will probably be the most naturally aesthetic run of holes players will encounter all season on tour.

“It’s a beautiful piece of land, it looks really, really good . . . true links, huge sand dunes, a really good design,” admitted Olympic gold medallist Justin Rose of his first encounter with the holes which twist and turn through sand hills that look good but will demand strategy and creative shot-making.

Rahm was the number one ranked amateur in the world when he last played the course. Things are different these days: although just over a year a pro, the Spaniard is ranked 11th in the official world rankings and a winner on the PGA Tour. “I’ve played it (in 2014), so I’ve changed as a player quite a bit. And some of the tee boxes have too . . . I do think that, having seen the course before, and visually, being more recognisable than when it’s brand new, I think it does help a little,” said Rahm.

For Harrington, who has ambitions to design golf courses, there is what he calls “a simplicity” to the front nine in particular that is appealing. “It’s a very nice course, very pleasant, obviously spectacular all the way through the front nine . . . my favourite hole on the course is six, the little par 3. The simplicity of it, a fantastic golf hole. Obviously I have to play the tournament before I fully understand the golf course, but certainly a very enjoyable golf course.”

Underrated golf course

As McDowell, who knows the track better than most, even if he must delve back into schoolboy memories, remarked: “I think Portstewart is probably a very underrated golf course in this part of the world, when you look at your Co Downs and your Portrushes.

“It is really a course of two nine holes, two very different-looking nines and they play a little different . . . to be honest with you, I was expecting the front nine to be awesome and the back nine to be disappointing; and it’s not the other way around, but the back nine is a hell of a lot stronger than I thought it was going to be because there’s more rough out there.

“The whole course is just in great shape. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised by the course. I think it will stand on its own two feet up against Portrush and Co Down.” added McDowell.

 Ballyfin to host next year’s DDF Irish Open

Next year’s DDF Irish Open looks set to again break new ground, in going to Ballyliffin, in Co Donegal, as part of a links swing in the run-up to the British Open.

Located on the Inishowen peninsula, Ballyliffin Golf Club – the most northerly course on the island – boasts two links courses, the Glashedy and the Old, with the championship set to be staged on the newer Glashedy links, which was designed by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock.

The tournament is expected to remain in its current slot, ahead of the Scottish Open and the British Open. An official announcement on the tournament going to Ballyliffin is scheduled to be made on Sunday.