Friday, April 27, 2012

Portstewart Perfection

It’s a long drive north, from Wexford to Portstewart, but you certainly appreciate the Major Inter-Urbans (motorways to you and me) when the trip to the Border takes under two and a half hours, courtesy of the M11, M50 and M1. Then you’re back on the ‘A’ roads, travelling through Northern Ireland on winding single lane roads, and sitting in traffic jams in country towns on market day wondering which idiots haven’t built a bypass.

The Celtic Tiger didn’t leave us much in terms of a positive legacy, but at least we have one hell of a good road network.

My tee time was 2.20 on a sunny Saturday afternoon, courtesy of an invitation from an American golf writer, Dave Owen. Actually, that’s a lie, because I invited myself. Dave wrote an article on his Irish golfing travels last year and in it he said he would be returning this Spring, so I got in touch, wrangled an invitation and arranged the weather – it was the least I could do.

Dave was starting at Portstewart and Royal Portrush and then making his way west, playing a bunch of his personal favourites (which just happen to be mine too). He’d brought along six friends for the journey, some of whom had never been to Ireland before, and some of whom had never played links golf before. This was a slap-in-the-face introduction if ever there was one.
I chose to meet them at Portstewart for four reasons:

·      It was a weekend
·      It has a new clubhouse I had yet to see
·      It has the most stunning start in Irish golf and what is often considered the best opening 9 holes on the island
·      I needed photographs (and boy was I snap-happy)

Perfect Views
The clubhouse was opened in 2009. It is big, luxurious and perfectly positioned with a vast expanse of glass wrapped around the bar so you can look out on the course and down the spectacular 1st hole. I was watching fourball after fourball tee off, but only after most of the golfers stopped and stared at the glorious surroundings: the Inishowen peninsula rises out of the ocean to the north west, dark and brooding; Mussenden Temple stands proudly on the headland in the distance, almost directly ahead; and the perfect beach streams off into the distance below you, white caps racing like stallions across the sand.

[Photo: views from the 1st tee]

When it comes to kicking off a round of golf, it doesn’t get better than this, and the dunes that await you are as mesmerising as they are terrifying.  

And all this from the bar in the clubhouse!

We were eating our food when Delwyn, the bar manager, passed by. He's been with the club for 22 years, so I asked him about the new clubhouse and he was happy to fill me in.

The place can host a wedding for 280, he told us, and couples regularly have their photographs taken on the 1st tee.

I wondered how many brides were golfers, and how many expected their new husband to get up the following morning and return to the same spot for entirely different reasons.

“It’s alright, love,” he’d say, “we’ll have plenty of time to catch our flight, but I’m just going to squeeze in a quick round before the honeymoon starts.”

Liar. There’s no such thing as quick round of golf at Portstewart. It’s too big, glorious and tricky for that.

[Photo: the approach to the dogleg par four 8th]

Dave arrived shortly afterwards. I recognised him from his New Yorker picture. He introduced his six companions and I introduced my golf widow wife – it seemed a fair exchange.

And shortly after that we were on the tee. My wife watched from the clubhouse, no doubt hoping that I started with a good drive. I’d played a match the previous day with my father and we had been thrashed 7 & 5, so I was not in the best of golfing spirits. Then again, this was not about playing good golf – it was about experiencing the heady thrills of playing Portstewart again, and weaving my way through a run of dunes known as ‘God’s Own Country’… and picking Dave’s brains, of course.

[Photo: tee shot on the 1st]

I was playing alongside Dave, David and Tim, and we stood on the tee and made the appropriate noises of approval, even as an anvil-head of dark clouds and rain swept across from Inishowen. They never reached us and we spent most of the next four hours playing in glorious April sunshine.
In Hooked I talk about the ‘golf experience’ of playing a course. Early on, before the reviews start, I mention the different things that are a vital part of that experience: weather is one; great company another; and playing well a third. Two out of three ain’t bad, and playing poorly matters little when you’re having fun. It makes you realise that you can play any course and, no matter how bad the quality, as long as the company’s entertaining you’ll usually have a blast.

Five Penny Piece
The shot of the day belonged to Dave, on the par three 6th hole, which I rate as the best 6th hole in the country. Take a look and you’ll see why.

[Photo: Five Penny Piece]

A mere 135 yards, the hole is called Five Penny Piece because the green doesn’t look much bigger than that from the tee and the sides are steep and will swat balls away into deep troughs below. If you get this far and haven’t realised the premium placed on finding the putting surface, you are guaranteed a long day. 10 holes have severe slopes rising up to them. They will make you cry!

I don’t know what Dave hit into the two club wind that was coming from about two o’clock, but the ball never budged from the flag. It cut through the wind and landed close to the hole. All the way I thought he was going to bag an ace and when we reached the green, his pitch mark was less than an inch away. It started the inevitable conversation about holes in one. I wasn’t contributing much since I’ve never had one, and ‘almost’ doesn’t cut it.

[Photo: David tees off on the par five 4th with Tim looking on]

My only quibble with Portstewart is not an uncommon one. The club promises the most exhilarating start, which lasts for 12 holes, before the pace slows and then ends tamely, with 16 and 18 being the least interesting on the course. After holes 1 to 9, it would be almost impossible to maintain that level of excitement, so Portstewart offers the best of whatever’s left… but you might find yourself walking towards the 16th and 18th greens (side by side under the clubhouse), glancing across at the dunes of the front nine, at the flags of holes 8 and 9 that shimmer in the late sunlight, and at the glory of the 1st tee box that will remain with you for a very long time.

[Photo: views across the 16th to the 9th green (left) and 8th green (centre), and God's Own Country beyond]

Despite that sense of longing, Portstewart is a thrilling round of golf, and the bar is as welcome a spot in the evening as it is in the morning. The rest of the lads – Tony, Tim, Jack and Howard – joined us in the bar for the post round analysis and scoring. My wife and I were invited for dinner, but we were heading in the opposite direction, and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome – the guys had landed from New York that morning and were about to embark on seven days of 36 holes. They were going to need their rest.

As they left, it was made clear that I was welcome to play golf in Washington, Connecticut, whenever I happen to be over that way.

Our hotel was the York Inn, in Portstewart, overlooking the Old course. After dinner we walked into town at around 11pm and found Morelli’s open and buzzing. No, not a bar - an ice cream parlour. Despite my dinner I managed to squeeze in some Toffee Crunch and Rhubarb & Custard ice cream. That’s what I call a perfect end to a perfect day.

David Owen is a writer for Golf Digest and the New Yorker. He is the author of several books, and not just about golf.

The Point of a Great Itinerary (my scores for David's chosen courses)
Portstewart 89
Royal Portrush 92
Ballyliffin Old 92 Glashedy 90
Portsalon 90
Narin & Portnoo 92
Donegal/Murvagh 94
Enniscrone 96
Carne 93

[Photo: Dave reflects on what might have been on the 6th green]

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