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Irish Open Preview: Portstewart hope to tee off Open season in unforgettable fashion

Though it would hardly be appropriate to describe them as noisy neighbours, Portstewart GC are determined to burnish their own identity when staging the $7m Dubai Duty Free Irish Open for the first time this week. Indeed, one could imagine them being seriously upset if they don’t beat the attendance record from Royal Portrush five years ago. 

“There’s no envy between us,” said Portstewart’s long-time secretary/manager, Michael Moss, who is now the club’s tournament director. “I’d be the first to acknowledge that being three miles from Portrush golf course has been the number one factor in our development.”

By way of indicating an ever-present rivalry, however, Moss highlighted the similarity in scoring when Portstewart emulated their neighbours by hosting the British Amateur Championship in 2014. “Qualifying scores were very much like for like, which was obviously a source of some pride for us,” he said.

On classic links measuring 7,118 yards, it promises to be a tremendous occasion, possibly the most significant Irish Open in recent decades. The influence of Rory McIlroy as tournament host has led to a plum scheduling slot in the run-up to the Open Championship, complemented by a stunning prize fund as part of the so-called Rolex Series.

These factors have led to a very exciting field, headed by McIlroy himself as the defending champion, Olympic gold medallist Justin Rose, Jon Rahm as Spain’s latest gift to tournament golf, and the talented Japanese Hideki Matsuyama, who is now among the elite in the world rankings. And 10 years after his victory at Adare Manor, Pádraig Harrington will be in action, having fully recovered from an elbow injury sustained in early June.

It came as something of a surprise to hear Harrington admit: “I’ve never played Portstewart. And I can’t figure out why I missed the 1992 Close Championship there.” That was the occasion when, by way of celebrating the newly completed Strand Course, the ‘Close’ was won by Gary Murphy, who beat JP Fitzgerald, now McIlroy’s highly regarded bagman, in the final.

Harrington’s absence had to do with an unfortunate clash of fixtures for our elite amateur players. Along with future Walker Cup representatives Raymond Burns and Richard Coughlan, the Dubliner played for the British and Irish Youths team against the Continent of Europe in Germany, which effectively ruled Portstewart out of their schedule.

McIlroy was a mere toddler back then, though Fitzgerald is perfectly positioned to fill in the gaps. Either way, having the world number three as the title holder lends priceless status to this island’s blue riband event, which was launched at Portmarnock 90 years ago.

Rahm’s presence is certain to stir precious memories of other leading Spaniards who have made such a rich contribution to the championship. Inevitably, Seve Ballesteros would be at the top of such a list, given a fifth-place finish behind Ben Crenshaw on his

debut at Portmarnock in 1976, followed by three victories during the 1980s.

Then there is compatriot and Ryder Cup partner José María Olazábal, who finished in a tie for 34th place on his debut as an amateur at Royal Dublin in 1985. Five years later, he won the title in some style at Portmarnock.

Later that decade, Sergio Garcia maintained Spain’s splendid tradition, through an appearance as an amateur at Druids Glen before returning a year later to register his first tournament win as a professional — at the same venue. So, Rahm has big shoes to fill, though the quality of his play on the PGA Tour since turning professional little more than a year ago suggests he is more than capable of meeting the challenge.

“As a European, it has always been an ambition of mine to be part of the European Tour and hopefully one day play in a Ryder Cup, so I can’t wait to get going,” said Rahm, whose recent years were spent as a student at the University of Arizona. “I have some great memories as a kid watching the Spanish players competing in the big European Tour events on TV and it will be special to be able to now play in them myself. It will be great to try and follow in the footsteps of Seve, José Maria and Sergio. And I am especially pleased to be supporting Rory and everything he’s trying to do through his Foundation.”

At 25, Matsuyama looks set to become the first Japanese winner of a Major title, though his mechanical style of putting can lead to inconsistency. Still, his presence gives the event the sort of international appeal that was so much a feature of Irish Opens in the 1970s and 1980s, the tournament’s halcyon years.

Matsuyama reached a significant milestone in China last season by becoming the first Asian winner of a World Golf Championship event. As an oriental, however, Korea’s YE Yang went further by capturing the 2009 PGA Championship. The closest the golf-crazy Japanese have come to such a breakthrough was in the 1980 US Open at Baltusrol, where Isao Aoki lost by two strokes to Jack Nicklaus.

Meanwhile, as a bonus, Matsuyama’s fellow countryman Hideto Tanihara has also confirmed his inclusion in the Portstewart line-up. Currently in the world’s top 50, he showed impressive skills when finishing in a share of third place in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May.

All of these newcomers are going to relish the distinctive challenge that Portstewart’s towering terrain has to offer. And where Portrush could look to the design skills of a celebrated master craftsman in Harry Colt, the more modest neighbours were happy to acknowledge the amateur aspirations of their own greens convenor, Des Giffin.  

I first met him during the Irish Amateur Close Championship back in August 1992, when the intimacy of competitive golf gained rich emphasis in the winner, Gary Murphy, having Eddie Power caddying for him. Five years previously, Power had also beaten JP Fitzgerald in the Close final at Tramore.

Northern Ireland is often commended for its good husbandry, and the development of Portstewart GC could hardly be a better example of this virtue. Their first move towards matching Killarney as only the second 54-hole facility on this island can be traced back to 1981, 30 years after the premier Strand Course had been used in qualifying for the Open Championship at Portrush.

This was when 50 acres of duneland were acquired for a remarkably modest outlay of £17,500. Then in 1988, it was decided to integrate seven new holes — from the second to the eighth — in a rearranged layout. And by adding another two holes to the ‘redundant’ seven, the club’s playing facilities became 45 holes.

These were the seven holes where Giffin, a modest four-handicapper who was then a teacher at the Coleraine Academical Institution, left a mark worthy of an accomplished professional. “I suppose I saw myself as a bit of a student of the game,” he recalled modestly. “And I very definitely considered Royal Portrush to be a links against which all others should be judged.”

Even more remarkable was the fact that most of the construction work was undertaken by the club’s greenkeeping staff of 12. Outside help was called upon only when heavy earth-moving equipment became necessary to carve a workable route through awkward elements of the new terrain. “I played in those dunes from the time I was a child,” Giffin went on. “What you see now is essentially my work. Only a couple of minor changes were made, including an additional 50 yards to the fourth hole.”

The acquisition of further land 20 years ago allowed for a final push to complete 54 holes, incorporating the premier Strand Course, the Riverside Course and the Old Course (pay and play) about a mile away, near the town.

“All things being equal, I think the Irish Open is going to be a huge success,” said Moss. “We want it to be so good that the organisers will automatically come knocking on our door again.”

He went on to acknowledge how themselves and Portrush maintain regular contact with each other to ensure that tourism to the area is fruitfully exploited.

When I wondered, however, what form the neighbourly contact might take should Portstewart happen to outstrip this week the record attendance of 112,000, diplomacy permitted Moss to make no more than a mischievous grin. But like the rest of us, he knows the omens are decidedly good.

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