All roads lead north for the 2017 Irish Open, writes Kevin Markham
My tour of Portstewart Golf Club had reached the dune top between the 4th and 8th holes.
“I call it the Yellow Brick Road,” Bernard Findlay told me, describing the renowned opening holes routed through Thistly Hollow. “Never let them know what’s coming next.”
When it was announced last year that Portstewart would be hosting the Irish Open, in the treasured spot two weeks before the Open Championship, there was a swell of anticipation among Irish golfers and Irish golfing organisations. It was as if stars were aligning. In the space of five years three Northern Irish links would play host to the Irish Open. On top of that, the oldest Major, the Open Championship, will be returning to Royal Portrush in 2019, while at Castlerock, farther down the road, significant investment with course architect Martin Hawtree is bringing change to another first class links.
A Yellow Brick Road it most certainly is, stretching all of 10 miles along this coastline and it’s one that is being paved with fairways of gold.
Bernard has been Portstewart’s course manager for 31 years. He has spent over half his life here after arriving as an enthusiastic 29-year-old, ready to create the holes (designed by local teacher, Des Griffin) that now flow through Thistly Hollow. Today’s task is preparing the course for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (July 6-9 ) and I was being given the guided — and scenic — tour.
There are no new holes but the new 14th tee boxes, once located between the reshaped 10th and 13th greens, have turned the formerly straight hole into a 522-yard (back tees) dogleg. This has allowed for increased shaping around the two greens helping to separate and define them. Elsewhere, new championship tee boxes on holes 4, 8, and 18 have increased the length while also enhancing the aesthetics. The views from the new 4th and 8th tees are stunning.
“The 18th tee box has been raised to allow golfers to see the fairway bunkers,” Bernard tells me as we stand on the large teeing area. “These were hidden before.” He then directed me to the side of the tee and pointed at another tee box marker.
“It can double up as a new back tee for the (par three) 15th if we want.”
There are also spectator pathways being routed through the dunes and these, too, show off the beauty of the course while also providing some spectacular viewing points. The area behind the 2nd green and 3rd tee will be much sought after as the elevation changes will present plenty of drama.
Who will be appearing at the Irish Open? Some big names are already on board, including Justin Rose, the Olympic champion and world number eight. It will be his first appearance in seven years while Jon Rahm will be making his first appearance ever. Also playing will be the four English stars: Lee Westwood, Tommy Fleetwood, Danny Willett, and Tyrrell Hatton.
The leading Irish contingent of Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington, Shane Lowry, Paul Dunne, and Rory McIlroy will all be hoping to continue what has been the most successful period of home dominance in the history of the Irish Open.
With Harrington lifting the trophy in a famous 2007 campaign, Lowry triumphing as an amateur in 2009, and McIlroy delighting the crowds with victory last year, Clarke and McDowell are the only players among this quintet yet to experience glory at their home open.
“The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open is always a special week for me,” said McDowell, “but this year it will be even more so, returning once again to the area where I grew up. Portstewart is a fantastic golf course and it’s great to be going back to another classic links. The atmosphere is always something else when the Irish Open comes to Northern Ireland and I’m sure this year will be no different.
“Winning the Irish Open has always been something I’ve dreamed of doing and my game is shaping up nicely at the start of this year so hopefully I can put in a strong performance in front of the home fans.”
Following Rory’s involvement three years ago, through his Rory Foundation, the Irish Open has grown in strength and stature. 2017 sees another huge boost as our national Open has been selected for the Rolex Series, with a guaranteed prize fund of $7m.
That’s a hike of some 60% compared to 2016, and with the new July time slot, this will be the highest profile Irish Open ever.
The hope is that the event will attract some of the biggest names in golf, such as the Masters champion — as we did last year at the K Club. Let’s not forget that Sergio won his first professional event at Druids Glen, in 1999, at the age of 19. The ultimate prize is for the Irish Open to make this July slot a regular fixture on the tour, which will attract golfers from around the world, particularly the US.
It is anticipated that 450 million homes will watch the event. It is also anticipated that more than 130,00 visitors will attend and tickets are also selling fast. The Irish Opens at Royal Portrush (2013) and Royal County Down (2015) sold out in advance and Portstewart is expected to follow suit. As with previous years, children under 16 are permitted free entry when accompanied by a ticket-holding adult, which makes it all the more attractive to families.
But that’s not all. Simon Alliss, the European Tour’s championship director, recently pointed to additional on-site facilities.
“As part of the Rolex Series, we have increased our investment in the overall fan experience and we are planning a host of announcements between now and the beginning of July, with some very exciting musical acts in the pipeline for our show stage,” he said.
“That, along with other enhancements in the tented village area — featuring interactive golf activities for all the family — and new on-course bar areas will give our fans a golf day out on a whole new scale.”
The introduction, for the first time ever, of a music stage on site will create quite a buzz especially as local favourites, Two Door Cinema Club, will be one of the performing acts. The County Down trio will make history by becoming the first ever major recording artists to perform at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open when they take the stage as part of the opening ceremony after the Pro-Am event. Band members Sam Halliday and Kevin Baird are keen golfers and, along with lead singer Alex Trimble, are excited to be opening what is widely expected to be the biggest Irish Open in the tournament’s 90-year history.
“It’s a huge honour for us to headline the opening ceremony at such a major sporting event on home soil,” said Halliday. “It’s been fantastic to see how the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open has grown in recent years, particularly since Rory McIlroy and his Foundation became involved.
“Kevin and I are big golf fans and we try to play when and where we can, so we’re hoping to take part in the Pro-Am during the day and give Rory and Justin Rose a run for their money before we take to the stage in the early evening.”
Accommodation is still available but it is booking up fast. (Contact the Coleraine Tourist Office on 048 7034 4723). I’d recommend the five star Blackrock House B&B on the Portstewart side of Portrush.
If you decide to venture up this way there is lots to do nearby — just one of the benefits of the Irish Open’s re-entry policy. This is, after all, home to the Giants Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, the Bushmills distillery and several glorious beaches. There is also a strong Game of Thrones connection (tours are widely available: www.visitbelfast.com/things-to-do/theme/game-of-thrones) to the area and the Dark Hedges will soon be making another appearance, this time in the forthcoming Transformers movie.
In 2016, Northern Ireland’s ‘Year of Food and Drink’ was a celebration of how the North’s epic landscapes, traditions, and people make their food heritage so unique. In other words, you’ll have no difficulty finding fabulous places to eat.
As a starting point, try the Ramore in Portrush. This is a network of four restaurants and a wine bar in the harbour. It is also worth noting that Darren Clarke’s favourite drinking spot, the Harbour Bar, is next door. It will be a hive of activity during the Irish Open. Indeed, there were queues out the door when I visited in early April. I would certainly recommend Neptune & Prawn if you like fish dishes. The Salt & Chilli Neptune & Prawns are worth their weight in gold.
In Portstewart, the famous Harry’s Shack is only yards from the golf club, while those with anything resembling a sweet tooth will be drawn to Morelli’s. Located on the seafront, the Morellis have been here for close to 100 years and their ice cream has won numerous awards. Try any of their sundaes and you’ll see why. Today it is a café/restaurant serving hot and cold food, and there is seating for 200 people. Not surprisingly, visitors often take their ice cream and stroll along the promenade.
If you plan to visit and combine the Irish Open with some golf, Castlerock (27 holes) and Royal Portrush (36 holes) are obvious local options, while Ballycastle and Roe Park are also close by. Roe Park is a good golf resort in Limavady, 20 miles south-west.
If you’re coming from the south-east, try Concra Wood (Co Monaghan), or Malone (Belfast), or Galgorm Castle (Ballymena).
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