The Irish Open returned to Northern Ireland at The Strand, Portstewart when play got underway this morning.
Meath golfer Pat Smyth recently paid a visit to the course. He recounts his experience and looks ahead to the next few days of top class golf.
In the past five years Northern Ireland has hosted the Irish Open golf tournament on two occasions, at Portrush, (2012), Royal Co. Down, (2015) and now for a third time in 2017, at Portstewart.
This says something about the popularity of the game in NI, and the standard of courses which host the tournament. When I visited the club and town there was a great sense of expectation, particularly as it is the biggest event ever held in the town.
Ireland’s and Northern Irelands reputation as a golf venue has been enhanced following the ‘Major’ successes of four great golf ambassadors, Darren Clarke, Graham McDowell, Rory McElroy and Padraig Harrington.
Their achievements at international level and in the Ryder Cup have placed Irish golf to the forefront of European and International golf. Rory’s dramatic win on the final holes last year at the K-Club was probably one of the best finishes witnessed in many years.
The birdie/eagle of the last few holes will live long in the memory of golfers. In addition, through Rory’s involvement in the ‘Dubai Duty Free Irish Open’ in recent years, the tournaments reputation has been enhanced attracting big names to enthral golfing fans.
Portstewart, this year’s host will not disappoint. The course was originally opened in 1908 but has undergone many changes and improvements since. It is a dramatic course especially on the front nine holes and possibly one of the best nine holes on the island.
In addition, the first hole from an elevated tee to a dogleg right fairway is arguably the best starting hole of any course in the country. Golfers love this hole and it is difficult to imagine that the visiting pros will not be impressed.
The opening nine continues with a series of great holes through majestic dunes. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate that this section of the course was designed by a local member, school teacher Des Giffin and not by an internationally famed course architect or golf pro turned designer.
The second nine, while not as dramatic as the opening nine, have undergone changes in preparation for the open. Derek Sweetnam, the course caddymaster, very kindly gave me a full tour of the course to illustrate the enhancements. These include a few new teeboxes, re-alignment of the 14th hole with extensive planting of marram grass on both sides of the fairway, all of which creates a much more interesting and challenging hole.
These changes were all proposed by dedicated head greenkeeper, Bernard Findlay, who is clearly proud of the preparations being made on the course by his team of green staff. The extent of the operation can be further appreciated when Bernard advises that a team of sixty green keeping staff will be assisting with course manicuring during the week of the open itself.
Apart from an Irish crew some of these greenkeepers travel from England, Wales, Holland, America and as far as South Africa. This is dedication but all useful on a CV. On the recent visit to the club it was also of interest to note the extensive preparations being made to set up the tented village for the benefit of the fans, a process that takes seven weeks with a three week dismantling phase following the tournament.
This tournament in July has the potential to further develop the reputation of the Irish Open, Irish golf and golf courses. With many big named and world class competitors entered, names like Justine Rose, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Robert Karlsson, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and many more will attract much attention. The full array of Irish players along with rookies/newcomers such as Dermot McElroy and Paul Dunne will add to the interest for dedicated home fans.
For the fans who have obtained accommodation in Portstewart, it is convenient as the course sits on the strand end of the town with shuttle buses operating from various nearby centres. It has the makings for a great tournament.