Portstewart, a small town in Northern Ireland, suffered from a large inferiority complex in the late 19th century. Separated by only three miles of rugged Ulster coastline from the neighboring resort town of Portrush, Portstewart had been losing ground to its more fashionable and popular rival since the early Victorian era. When it came to golf, Portrush was also in the forefront, having introduced the game in 1888.
Portstewart began its efforts to catch up in 1894. It took the better part of a century, but Portrush has finally been transformed to the first rank of seaside golf. In 1990 Portstewart added seven new seaside holes that dramatically reconfigured its old Strand course and brought it into the vanguard of the great links courses of the British Isles.
The man principally charged with designing the new holes was Des Giffin, a math teacher at the local Coleraine grammar school. Giffin laid out seven holes through the Brobdingnagian, a set of billowy barrier dunes that are brocaded with dark green buckthorn bushes. The result of these efforts is nothing short of spectacular.
The front and back nines at Portstewart are quite different in character and terrain from one another. The front nine cavorts up, down and around the oversized sandhills, while the more open, lowland back nine wanders along the broad banks of the River Bann. This combination of seaside and riverine holes makes for an unusual and eclectic course that is also a marked contrast from nearby Portrush.
The ast hole at Portstewart is indisputably one of the finest openers in links golf. From a parapet tee, the fairway runs away from the clubhouse and the town, coiling left to right through the tricorn-shaped dunes. To the right are the wide, smooth, pale sands of Portstewart Strand, on which hundreds of beachgoers park their cars on those all-too-brief sunny summer days. In the distance, beyond the inlet of the Bann, is the cylindrical outline of Mussenden Temple. Perched on the bluff above the sea, the temple was once the summer library of the Earl of Bristol, later Bishop of Derry, and was inspired by the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. Still further in the distance is the silhouette of the vast blue-gray hills of Donegal.
The fact that these new holes, Nos. 2 through 8, are of such a high standard, yet were designed by an amateur architect working on a shoestring budget, makes one wonder whether professional course architects are overrated or whether Des Giffin is simply an exceptionally gifted amateur. It is clear that what Mr. Giffin had working in his favor was both a keen understanding of the game and an intimate knowledge of the wondrous linksland with which he was given to work
Like all great links courses, Portstewart is more than just a collection of fine golf holes. It is a tableau vivant of roiling, windswept dunes, unfettered ocean views and the sluggish sweep of the Bann as it makes its way to the sea beneath the promontories of Derry and Donegal.