With dunes the size of skyscrapers framing fairways and greens in natural valleys, Portstewart is rightly acclaimed to have some of the most dramatic holes in golf. Indeed, the first nine are as picturesque, quirky, undulating and demanding as anywhere. We were lucky to play with two long-standing members who were passionate about their beloved club and matched the rich entertainment of the course with wit and wisdom. They played with a smile and gave us some key tips (usually on how best to avoid smashing the ball into the dunes).
Their first advice was to take a photo from the opening tee with the Atlantic rolling into the Strand beach on the right, grassed dunes ahead and a dog-leg par four with what seemed to be a slither of fairway. It is a magnificent opening hole by any standards and after a pleasing drive, I found the green in regulation only to three-putt.
This became a regular pattern as I was bamboozled by the pace of greens still recovering from the hollow-tining of spring maintenance. No matter. There was plenty to enjoy at Portstewart on a beautiful spring day when the sun shone and a gentle breeze prompted barely a flutter of flags. The fun continued with the second hole which, on reflection, was my favourite. It demands a tee shot around the biggest dune I have ever seen and an approach up to a two-tier green which becomes progressively narrower. If an opening shot goes left, its follow-up would require a Sherpa Tensing-style ascent. As we were without mountaineering gear, we hit wildly to the right.
The third is the first of four fiendish par threes – 200+ yards downhill with a grassy hill on the left and sand traps in front of the green. The fifth is a remarkable hole and is called Rifle Range because it is on the site of a Second World War target practice ground.
The par-four requires an accurate tee shot to avoid rough and bunkers but even after steering mine onto the fairway, I was advised to lay up with my approach rather than attempt to guide the ball between two giant dunes. Reaching to putting surface is certainly not a job completed because it is 56 yards long. Needless to say, I four-putted! This is followed by the short sixth which scuppered many a promising round in professional competitions such as the Irish Open. It is called Five Penny Piece because it is a tight circular green perched above alarming roll-offs. I was very pleased to find the target, only to three-putt again.
The 8th is another stunning hole demanding a decent carry off the tee to skirt a dune to the left before a dramatic turn up a green protected by bunkers on either side. We had been told that after such a magnificent outward nine, the homeward stretch would have a sense of after the Lord Mayor’s show.
One of the resolutions, we were told, could be for Portstewart to switch their nines to build anticipation rather than let the golfer down. It is easy to understand these comments but I believe they are harsh. There are still plenty of challenges between holes 10 and 18 and there are wonderful views over the River Bann and beyond. The left-to-right 10th, for example, demands great accuracy from a blind tee shot to hold the fairway. I thought I had cut its corner perfectly only for the dramatic fairway undulations to feed my ball into one of its lurking bunkers.
Barmouth, a gorgeous par-three 12th is one of the most picturesque holes on the course with a stunning vista from its elevated tee. The Hill, the par-five 14th gives an opportunity it of reaching in two if the golfer avoids the dune to the right and is not fazed by the dramatic fairway undulations which keep the green hidden until late on. The 15th is a heck of a par-three with bunkers providing a semi-circle of protection at the front and on both sides, luring balls which are slightly off target. The 16th takes the golfer back to the clubhouse and then they go out and back again, giving the impression that the final couple of holes are a bit of an afterthought and don’t match the drama of what has preceded them. Nevertheless, Portstewart provides a very fine challenge and we had a superb day out, followed by tales of derring-do in a truly impressive modern clubhouse. I would love to return when the greens are at their sharpest.