Given their length (583, 516, 555, 522 yards) and the prevailing wind, which is in the pros’ favour for the three shortest holes, that is no surprise. After two days they have produced a combined total of 36 eagles and 526 birdies. Tomorrow, they may well provide the springboard for someone to leap through the field and, with little change in wind strength anticipated, the par-five 13th and 14th could determine who wins this tournament.
The second of Portstewart’s par fives is the uphill seventh, measuring 516 yards. There is not one bunker. That alone should fill most golfers with joy and the belief that a birdie is in the offing, but you have to understand the hole fully to play it well. It doglegs gently right and is uphill from the turn. The optimum landing zone for the pros is around the 300-yard mark, where it is 24 yards wide. After that the dogleg causes problems.
On Friday, I sat in the dunes and watched as players tackled the hole. The first group through — Canizares, Heisele, and Detry — landed their tee shots in the perfect place, within a few yards of each other. Detry eagled the hole; Canizares and Heisele birdied it. Over the next two hours or so, 23 golfers found the fairway, 14 golfers missed by a yard or two, and seven ended up in the big dunes on the right. Those who found the dunes all had to play safe and ended up playing a third shot from around 100 yards out. There were no birdies. Those who found the fairway were going for the green with long irons, while some — like the young Englishman Callum Shinkwin, who took on the dunes and sailed over — were using well-lofted irons to attack the green. Birdies abounded — typically from missed eagle putts.
There is trouble around the green with a steep dune dropping sharply down to the putting surface from the left, while on the right the green drops sharply into a deep hollow.
The long line of wooden steps rising out of this hollow might serve as a climb of shame for missing the target and the pros face a very tricky blind shot if that is where their ball finishes. Florian Fritsch proved birdies are possible from down there, but he needed a 20-footer to make it happen.
The wind is due to change direction today. If, as predicted, it comes from the south-west, then tee shots may once again end up going into the dunes on the left (which was a rare occurrence yesterday) and the sort of luck that helped Harrington save par is unlikely to be seen again: A spectator found his ball in deep rough and picked it up… allowing Pádraig to claim relief.
How many volunteers does it take to man a golf hole? For many spectators they are an ‘invisible’ presence, nothing more than ‘blue jackets’ waving ‘Quiet’ signs or marshalling people from one point to the next. They deserve more credit, especially as the different holes are marshalled by various clubs from across Northern Ireland. The pros should certainly be grateful as the marshals double as ball spotters and, given how wayward some of the golfers have been on the seventh, some lost-ball blushes have been spared.
Belvoir Park is marshalling the seventh hole this week and there are 26 members working in two rotations of 13. It is a long stint with the first rota starting at 6.30am and finishing at 12.30pm. The next shift takes over and works till 6.30pm.
To say marshals are in the firing line is not an exaggeration as I saw the flagman on the seventh duck for cover twice while I was there. On the opposite side of the fairway, I was told one of the marshal positions is recommended as the perfect line for tee shots. Fortunately, there have been no incidents and neither has there been any bother from the crowds. This is golf, after all, and despite the on-course bar and catering facilities alongside the seventh fairway, everyone is well behaved.
What are the benefits of being a marshal? You get to see the pros up close. Pauline Baillie, Hon Sec at Belvoir Park, managed to get photos of herself with Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose during the Pro Am, and one of her colleagues was given a ball by South African Dylan Frittelli yesterday, even if only to express his disgust with his caddie for underclubbing him on the par-three sixth.
The team — like all marshal volunteers — also receive a Dubai Duty Free Irish Open one-off blue/black rainsuit to wear along with t-shirt and cap. It’s a nice touch even if there appeared to be no ladies’ rainsuits left when Belvoir Park placed their order. There’s quite a difference between a men’s and ladies’ large, to which the numerous female volunteers will attest.
In terms of statistics, the four par fives were ranked as the 12th, 16th, 18th, and 17th hardest holes on the course on Thursday, giving up a combined total of 20 eagles, 280 birdies, and 275 pars. Against that were 34 bogeys and just 15 double bogeys or worse.
Yesterday, these same holes ranked 11th, 18th, 16th, and 17th. There were 16 eagles, 246 birdies, 308 pars, 37 bogeys, and 9 double bogeys or worse.