PORTSTEWART, Northern Ireland – Michael Moss was doing promotional work for the local government in the mid-1970s in an effort to bring more visitors to this part of Northern Ireland. At one point in 1976, he was called into the mayor’s office in Coleraine and feted for his work driving tourists to Portstewart Golf Club.
“I was congratulated for bringing 13 people from outside of Northern Ireland to this tournament,” Moss recalled one recent morning over coffee in the second-floor restaurant at Portstewart’s clubhouse.
Moss laughed at the memory. During The Troubles, 13 visitors was a big deal. On a typical morning these days, several times that many international visitors file through the Portstewart pro shop and happily pay £150 ($194) to play the Strand, host course for this week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
In 1978, Moss became Portstewart’s secretary/manager, a job he held for 39 years before retiring this year. He remains busy, serving as tournament director for the Irish Open.
This is only the third time since 1953 that a Northern Ireland club has hosted the tournament. (The Irish Open was not played from 1954 to 1974.) The Irish Open was played five miles away at Royal Portrush in 2012 and at Royal County Down near Belfast in 2015.
The tournament’s return to Northern Ireland in 2012 was considered a rousing success, with 130,785 fans in attendance. That helped Royal Portrush secure the 2019 British Open.
This week’s Irish Open – now part of the European Tour’s Rolex Series, which carries a $7 million purse – figures to be a similarly festive affair. Portstewart is best known for the Strand’s front nine, but the closing three holes are ideally suited for tournament viewing because they run parallel on open land, with the 16th and 18th greens resting at the base of the clubhouse.
“The final day, people are going to be here in this big stand,” Moss said, pointing to the viewing area extending down the 18th fairway, “and they’re going to get the 18th green, the 17th tee and the 16th green,” Moss said. “There’s not many tournaments where people get that. . .
“We want it to be a party. The European Tour is very keen on that. It’s changed from golf being played in cathedral hush. They want a bit of noise and a bit of fun.”
In preparation for the tournament, the 14th tee, previously nestled between the 10th and 13th greens, was moved to the other side of the 13th green. New mounding was added around the 10th and 13th greens. Those changes should ease the bottleneck on that part of the course and improve spectator viewing.
While Portstewart’s closing holes are well situated for tournament play, Moss said other routings were considered that would have given more television airtime to the Strand’s jaw-dropping front nine, which begins with that opening tee shot played from a seaside bluff.
In 1981 the club acquired some dramatic dunesland, and five years later it developed seven new holes, which became Nos. 2-8 on the Strand. Those holes were a big factor in making Portstewart a must-play for international visitors.
“Building those holes changed the whole dynamic of Portstewart Golf Club, because this was really dune country,” Moss said.
Portstewart’s front nine dominates any conversation of the course, not unlike the back nine at Tralee on Ireland’s west coast. Those opening Portstewart holes play through some of the largest dunes in Irish golf, and it quickly becomes apparent that golfers will play shots to be remembered, for better or worse, long after they’ve left. The drive through the dunes on No. 2, ominously named “Devil’s Hill,” and the delicate short iron that must find the plateau green on the par-3 sixth, are among the best in a great stretch of holes.
Moss said organizers decided to stick with the standard routing familiar to club members and guests in part for the spectacle of starting each round on arguably Ireland’s finest opening hole.
“You come back to the fact that the first tee is so iconic, and that always wins the argument,” Moss said.
The entire course figures to get plenty of airtime; Golf Channel will air 24 hours of live coverage of the Irish Open in the U.S. Moss is eager for the world to see the Strand in all its glory.
“When you think about the first tee and the 2-mile golden beach and it’s a Blue-Flagged beach (signifying high environmental standards), and the Atlantic Ocean and the Donegal hills and Mussenden Temple,” Moss said, “there’s nothing the cameras won’t like about Portstewart Golf Club.”
(Note: This story appeared in the July 3, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)