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VII: Portstewart

New Zealand is renowned around the world for boasting a diverse range of unique and spectacular landscapes, reflected in the variety of its golf courses. Parkland, mountain range, seaside, farmland and hilltop- you name a setting and there’s a pretty decent chance that New Zealand has built a golf course across it. Growing up and playing golf in this country, we have been extremely spoiled and possibly partially numbed to some of golf’s remarkable settings- there’s barely ever a place quite like home! Cresting a small hill up to the first tee at Portstewart, 10 minutes outside of Portrush, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes….

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The mighty dunes of Portstewart's front nine

In the world there are hundreds of courses which lay claim to the best first tee in golf, however as we stood over our opening shots at Portstewart it was hard to fathom a more magical first look. The golden sands and crashing waves of the Portstewart Strand to the right and nothing but a choppy sea of golf’s largest dunes out in front- this was Jurassic Park golf in its most breathtaking and overwhelming form. The best part about views like this on the first tee is the excuse it provides- after a moment taking it all in I proceeded to quickly shank my driving iron out of bounds. I think in golf we call that balance…. Amongst a trip flooded with expletive ridden “oh wow’s” and “oh my god’s” this was truly one of the purest “HOLY SHIT!” moments so far.

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The second tee shot threaded between two dunes

I have often heard Portstewart referred to as a hidden gem, but flanked by dunes of unthinkable proportions, I don’t imagine there are too many easy places for it to hide. I don’t think I have ever felt smaller on a golf course than walking down the first two fairways. Traversing these dunes makes golf a true sport at Portstewart, a special hybrid of hiking and golf.

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The view back down the par 5 fourth hole

Whilst playing the front nine, I couldn’t reconcile in my mind just how difficult it would be to design golf holes of this quality in a landscape so dramatic. The slopes, ridges and hills are of otherworldly proportion which is often not the ideal quality in a site for a golf course- making for awkward transition holes to navigate gradients too steep for proper golf. I could only reason that a golf course architect of renowned significance and quality could have routed a golf course so seamlessly through and around these majestic dunes- how wrong I was.

 

Mathematics and golf have a few loose connections, mainly associated with counting one’s shots over a round- a feat which has become increasingly difficult at times during this trip, however imagine my disbelief in learning that the course as laid out today was designed by Des Griffen- a local mathematics teacher who grew up in the dunes of Portstewart. Mr Griffen’s natural eye for design and variety is truly unfathomable and in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but think of the monstrosity I would have come up with in the same position!

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The daunting tabletop par 3 sixth hole

Outside its obvious beauty and breathtaking scale of landforms, what makes the front nine so special is the variety of ways which holes navigate the dunes. There is absolutely no uniformity in the routing, ensuring the dunes and tumbling land provide a unique challenge at each hole- pinpointing a couple would be a missed opportunity, so here are six….

  • Number one plays from a beautifully raised up tee box down into a valley with a green tucked into a base of a sand hill.

  • The second hole features one of the most memorable tee shots in the world, splitting a small gap between two dunes, leaving a steep uphill approach to a plateau green atop a smaller dune.

  • The par 5 fourth begins at an elevated tee box and weaves seamlessly between two dune ridges.

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The par 3 12th green alongside the Bann River

  • The green site of the fifth hole is majestic, a raised up green splits two hillocks, leaving a small gap for players to run the ball up to the green.

  • A flip shot par 3 - the sixth is a gorgeous hole, the green perched atop a small dune, dropping off steeply on all sides – a scary shot in the wind!

  • Number eight may be my favourite hole on the course- a unique dogleg left with a split level fairway and death long of the green

 

The sheer variety, majesty and flat out quality of this stretch of holes left me with the indelible taste which many others have had before- this is truly one of the best 9 holes of golf on the planet.

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The challenging par 3 15th boasts an excellent green complex

Currently under significant construction, the back nine often gets a hard time for the drop in quality from the preceding holes. Laid out outside the main duneland, there is no doubt that the back 9 occupies the less-dramatic land on the property, however architecturally the quality of the holes holds up and probably suffer from being the second act. The 10th, 11th and 12th boast excellent variety and some truly compelling golf shots alongside the Bann River whilst the par 3 15th is a testing short iron into a tabletop green encompassed by bunkers. In walking the holes currently being re-worked, there were obviously dramatic improvements being undertaken and a number of the green complexes looked very much in keeping with the quality of the front nine. There is no doubt in my mind I will be back to sample the finished product and if the changes stand up with the quality of the front, the result will be an absolutely world-class course top to bottom!

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The excellent perched up 11th green

In a world of around 40,000 golf courses, standing alone in your own unique bucket makes you something of a marvel. Portstewart Golf Club’s gorgeous landscape, unfathomable terrain and uniqueness of design makes it a place which cannot be compared with anything else- it stands a one-of-one and truly should never be missed.

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