JOHN MCHENRY: Portstewart joins list of the North’s jewels

If impressions count, then it is hard to explain just how impressed I was with Portstewart for the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, writes John McHenry.

As a venue, it more than justified its section for the Irish Open as a golfing test to one of Europe’s strongest fields — but more than that, it also demonstrated to a world-wide TV audience that there is more to golf in Ulster than just the more famous Royal Portrush and Royal County Down Courses.

Framed by towering dunes, Portstewart has it all. It is more stunning than its illustrious neighbours and this week the players have been treated to the best conditioned links course I have ever played (including Open Championships) or experienced.

From the off yesterday, Portstewart produced moments of brilliance, frustration, and opportunity. Brilliance from the blossoming talent that is Jon Rahm, frustration from superstars like Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood, and opportunity for the likes of Daniel Im and our man of the moment, Paul Dunne.

Over the past year we have gradually got to know and understand that Rahm is unquestionably one of the blossoming talents of world golf. Still raw in terms of being able to consistently compete and win at the highest level, Rahm shows no fear for the long road ahead. If his first round said anything then it is that he is intimidated by no one and that he has a power and finesse game that, once finely tuned, will stand the test of time. That said, he was fortunate to largely survive most of his misses yesterday but maybe, just maybe, the confidence gained from his great performance might be the catalyst for his first Irish Open win come Sunday. That will only happen with a more accurate driver in his hands.

The palpable frustration shown by McIlroy during that same round with Rahm clearly demonstrates that he is still some way off title-winning form, let alone major championships.

Put simply, short-game woes are breaking down his competitiveness.

From my perspective, I don’t draw any comfort from seeing Rory experimenting with putters but I do think that perhaps he needs to develop a new putting routine that also includes using his caddie JP Fitzgerald (a great putter) or another guru to help him with his line selection and alignment. Rory cannot afford to lose confidence in his ability to grind out results on the putting green as he knows this is the area that offers the greatest return in terms of him being competitive at the highest level — where he belongs.

For someone still chasing his first Tour title, Paul Dunne is doing little wrong. Famous for bursting onto the scene as an amateur when he was the 54-hole leader at the 2015 British Open, Dunne’s short professional career is already on a sharp incline and winning can’t be too far away. That said, he seems patient about not putting himself under too much pressure, allowing the process to happen by itself.

Incredibly focused, Dunne can already give pointers to his more mature competitors around game management and general positivity but his obvious comfort playing under pressure in front of large crowds, coupled with his ability to shoot low scores in important tournaments bodes well for the affable man from Greystones.

A word too for Pádraig Harrington, Shane Lowry, Graeme McDowell, and Michael Hoey, all of whom are working hard, gamely looking for that lost spark, that ignites their lost form allowing them to be tournament competitive once more. All have struggled for 72-hole consistency in recent years and although yesterday’s performance is only a stepping stone, the resolve and determination shown to post their scores surely proves that perseverance and belief count more than ever. Onwards and upwards.

Finally, if I had one criticism this week then it is that Portstewart should be a par-70 course rather than a Par-72 course. It is too generous for a field as the one playing this week (evidenced by two-thirds of them shooting sub-par rounds on the first day). But with a title as prestigious as the Irish Open at stake who really cares!

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