For the third time in five years, the Irish Open will be contested on a links golf course. After the successes of Royal Portrush and Royal County Down, it is Portstewart’s turn and Northern Ireland can bask in the collective glory.
The challenges facing the Irish Open competitors in 2017 will not be about length. This is no 7,741 yard Erin Hills, nor does it need to be.
Links golf is in an entirely different category when it comes to testing the world’s best.
And on a big-duned course such as Portstewart, the difficulties of the wind will be compounded by the severity of the dunes crowding in on the front nine (known as ‘Thistly Hollow’).
Wayward shots can be severely punished with thick rough and all manner of awkward lies.
The back nine keeps close to the big dunes of the front for the first three holes (10-12) before the landscape opens up.
On these final six holes there are back-to- back par fives – both offering eagle opportunities and the chance of some fireworks on Sunday afternoon – and the illusion that there is more room to attack the course.
Professionals may not dwell on hole indices but the card lists holes 16, 17 and 18 as indices 6, 2 and 8, respectively, so these more open holes still need to be respected and will deliver an exciting finish.
Portstewart: Par 72, 7,118 yards.
Hole 1, Par 4, 427 yards. Tubber Patrick.
The 1st is often regarded as the best opening hole in Ireland, with its views along the beach to Mussenden Temple and the Inishowen Peninsula and Donegal Hills across the sea.
The hole is a left-to- right dogleg hitting down from a high tee around a forest of sea buckthorn. The dogleg can be cut but finding the fairway promises better options on the approach to a low, natural green. No bunkers.
Hole 2, Par 4, 366 yards. Devil’s Hill.
Will we see anyone go for the green on their tee shot, here? Perhaps on Sunday afternoon but its 366 yards belies the 2nd’s difficulty.
From another high tee (and more views) you fire straight through the dunes to a fairway below, which then narrows as it rises steadily to a steep green squeezed between more dunes and with a solitary bunker front right.
Balls short of the green could roll back 50 yards. It is a high risk strategy to do anything but play an iron and keep left but if the wind is behind and the Pros need to make scores on the final day, who knows what we might see. The 1st may be the hole that most visitors remember but the 2nd is probably the best hole on the course.
Hole 3, Par 3, 218 yards. The Settlement.
Another of the high tees, the 3rd starts next to the 2nd green and hits back down to the base of the dunes where a beautifully shaped green is defended by a solitary bunker.
It is another gorgeous hole and one of the best spectator points will be above the 2nd green where you can watch the tee shots on the 3rd (and approach shots to the 2nd) all day long. Hitting right and/or long would be the biggest mistake but there is room to miss front and left.
Hole 4, Par 5, 583 yards. Thistly Hollow.
A new back tee has added 60 yards to this hole. It has also added height and continues the trend of high tee boxes and dramatic views. The 4th is a dogleg right and the back tee may actually make the hole easier for many as the landing area is now broader and more visible… with no bunkers.
The hole then straightens and the green is clearly visible, perched on a ledge. The slope up to the putting surface is steep and any weak shots will run back 10 yards, so approach shots (be they the second or third) must allow for this.
Even the green can deliver cruel punishment to too much spin. From tee to green, the one place Pros must avoid is the right hand side as the ridges and troughs are treacherous.
Bunkering is once again sparse – just two – and you can count the number of bunkers on the opening five holes on the fingers of one hand.
Hole 5, Par 4, 461 yards. Rifle Range.
The prevailing wind is in the golfer’s favour here and that should help on what is Portstewart’s Index 1 hole. The high tee shows exactly what is required as the hole curls gently left with the green tucked behind a pair of hefty sentry dunes.
The tee shot needs to be centre-right of the fairway to present a direct approach, while the green is almost 60 yards long with a short sharp tier across the middle.
Hole 6, Par 3, 143 yards. Five Penny Piece.
It may be short but this is Ireland’s equivalent of the Postage Stamp at Royal Troon. In other words you simply cannot afford to miss the green as the slopes fall off every side and only two bunkers will stop a steep and rapid descent.
The positive news for the Pros is that the prevailing wind is into them which will help stop the ball dead.
Hole 7, Par 5, 516 yards. Strawberry Hill.
Rising slowly through the dunes, the 7th curls quickly to the right which will leave a semi-blind shot for those wielding a Driver. Given its short length and the difficulties presented by the dunes and rough, the Driver may be left in the bag.
The narrow green is approached by a narrower fairway which drops away sharply into a hollow on the right. It is a very real eagle opportunity but off- target approaches will leave some tricky shots from above or below the green.
Hole 8, Par 4, 445 yards. Portnahapple
This sharp dogleg hits towards the clubhouse as the fairway drops away to a flat and surprisingly generous landing area.
It then doglegs left, dropping down further before rising to a green tucked into the side of Portstewart’s biggest dune. Strong green shapes and five bunkers await those who place the ball sensibly off the tee. The Driver is unlikely to be required.
Hole 9, Par 4, 378 yards. Larkhill
Short it may be but this par four rises constantly and the approach shot to a green above the players will be difficult to judge, especially with the wind.
The green is partially hidden by a dune shouldering in from the right but expect a few drives to almost reach. The green is slick and angles from back to front.
Hole 10, Par 4, 407 yards. Fisherman’s Walk
Portstewart definitely favours a fade and the 10th is another example as the hole drifts right from a high tee down around a lingering line of chaotic dunes.
Fairway bunkers finally make their presence felt with a couple protecting the left hand edge but these shouldn’t trouble the Pros who will be hoping to see the expanded 10th green for their second.
The green slopes away from the players and lies low on the land, allowing for bump-and- run shots, especially as no bunkers protect the green.
Hole 11, Par 4, 407 yards. Fernside
Left to right for the Pros, this hole requires two precise shots. From the tee the player must keep away from the dune slopes slanting down from the right while also staying out of four deep bunkers stationed in a line along the left.
The fairway is bumpy and can easily divert tee shots towards the sand as it narrows en route to the green. The wind may also not help in this regard as it could be coming off the right. The approach shot requires care as the smallish green is perched on a ledge with a steep front and left hand side – no bunkers required here!
Hole 12, Par 3, 167. Barmouth
In a very similar direction to the 6th (which is clearly visible from the tee) and only 20 yards longer, this par three is rated as the easiest on the course. The high tee makes the dangers all too apparent – five bunkers. The green has plenty of movement but it is a big target and birdies will abound.
Hole 13, Par 5, 555 yards. Cashlandoo
The first of back-to- back short par fives and the start of what must be considered a gentler run for home.
The big dunes have been left behind but there is still plenty of movement to come. It’s a blind drive over a low crest that then bends slightly left.
The danger is minimal – two cross bunkers – and the Pros will open their shoulders, expecting to reach the green in two. The low-lying green is well protected by bunkers.
Hole 14, Par 5, 522 yards. The Hill
A new tee has added some 60 yards to the 14th as well as creating a left to right- shaped hole, but the Pros will hope to be on in two.
From the tee, the enormous new bunker in a stubborn dune looks to block the direct route… but the bigger hitters will expect to fly it.
Other bunkers await but there is room and the hole’s main defence may be the shapely fairway which can block the view of the green and leave an awkward stance or two. The green sits in a nest of dunes which may be more of a help than a hindrance.
Hole 15, Par 3, 198 yards. Articlave
The index for amateurs suggests it is an easy hole but it is 40 yards longer for the Pros and the five bunkers beneath the perched green will cause problems for those falling short or drifting right. Expect to see the pin in a front right position as that is where the greatest chaos will be caused.
Hole 16, Par 4, 418 yards. The Plateau
A semi-blind, over-the- crest drive hides a difficult tee shot. Firing left will lead to disaster as the fairway slides down into impossible rough. Finding the fairway is key as players then aim directly at the clubhouse.
Hole 17, Par 4, 436 yards. Agherton
The final three holes may lack the big-dune excitement of early on but the 17th packs one of the nastiest surprises.
There are no burdensome bunkers and a drive over the crest looks straightforward… the approach shot, however, is fraught with danger as yet another perched green awaits, with steep slopes falling off three sides.
There will be many bogeys here and probably a few gut- wrenching moments on Sunday afternoon. This could easily be where the tournament is won or lost.
Hole 18, Par 4, 471 yards. Strand Head
The longest par four arrives at the 18th. A new, raised tee box has added almost 50 yards and it enables players to see the bunkers protecting the fairway as the hole arches ever so slightly over a crest.
There’s a hint of right to left as the fairway angles around a pocket of bunkers but it is the approach shot to a deceptive green protected by low profile bunkers which will catch out many of the players. There are 11 bunkers here… as many as appear on the entire front nine.
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