Editor’s note: This story, which originally published on July 29, is another installment in our annual Best Of The Year series. Throughout December, we will be bringing you the top GGP+ stories of 2022.
COUNTY DONEGAL, IRELAND | When you’re tasked with creating what in all likelihood may be the last links course built on dunesland in Ireland, you don’t want to mess it up. Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort put its faith in Tom Doak to deliver the trophy course the Northwest needed to put itself on Ireland’s crowded golf map.
Based on the immediate ratings among the top-100 courses in the world, the visually stunning St. Patrick’s Links has delivered on its promise.
“When we were going to build St. Patrick’s, it had to be special and had to be unique,” said John Casey, who along with his brother, Frank Jr., run the operations at the family-owned Rosapenna. “So we had to make sure we got the very best and Tom (Doak) showed interest and it seemed crazy not to work with him.”
Doak has been blessed with plenty of stunning settings to carve out some of the world’s most treasured new courses: cliffside gems such as Pacific Dunes and Cape Kidnappers; sandy seaside tracks at Tara Iti and Barnbougle Dunes; inland prairie marvels such as Ballyneal.
Dramatic dunesland such as St. Patrick’s on Sheephaven Bay don’t come along much anymore.
“The opportunity to build a seaside course in Europe is almost impossible to come by now,” Doak told Golf.com in 2017 before starting the project.
The dunesland where St. Patrick’s now sits was purchased in the 1970s by local hotelier Dermot Walsh, who originally developed a 36-hole complex with one course designed by Irish architecture legend Eddie Hackett (Enniscrone, Carne, Dooks) and the other by former Royal County Down assistant pro Joanne O’Haire, the only course in Ireland designed by a woman.
Hackett’s course was called Maheramagorgan Links, named after the more than 100-foot tall dune presiding over Sheephaven Bay where the current 16th tee now sits. The O’Haire course, at 5,800 yards, was called Trá Mór.
In 2004, the property was purchased by local developer Richard McCafferty, who in 2006 hired Jack Nicklaus to redesign the 36 holes on the 320 acres where the original two courses lay. Nicklaus called it “the opportunity of a lifetime” to build a seaside links that would anchor a new luxury resort next to the established Rosapenna.
After two months’ work, the project went bankrupt and shut down. Frank Casey, who with his wife, Hilary, had owned and operated Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort since 1981, bought the coveted land adjacent his two esteemed Rosapenna courses – the Old Tom Morris Links and the Pat Ruddy-designed Sandy Hills Links – as a toxic asset in November 2012.
After sitting on the land for six years, the Caseys decided to develop a new St. Patrick’s Links and add it to Rosapenna’s portfolio. Doak’s relationship with the resort started with work on the Old Tom course in 2007, so the Caseys stuck with him. Work started in June 2019 and continued through COVID-19 until it was ready to open in the summer of 2021.
After being open only a few months, St. Patrick’s debuted at No. 55 in Golf Magazine’s listing of the top-100 courses in the world – the sixth-highest rated on the Emerald Isle behind Northern Ireland’s venerable Royals (County Down and Portrush) and the republic’s revered gems Ballybunion, Lahinch and Portmarnock.
St. Patrick’s gives Rosapenna a desirable threesome of courses to attract golf travelers to the far north of the republic in County Donegal, adding a brawny option to the classic Old Tom and the modern Sandy Hills links. Despite its young age, it already heads the class. Even its logo – incorporating a snake which the patron saint drove from Ireland, the letters S and P and a shamrock – ranks among the coolest in the isles.
Although the dunes can be visually intimidating, St. Patrick’s embraces the modern links styles of Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart with wider fairways and daring greens.
“They’re just more enjoyable and more fun,” said John Casey. “The challenge of St. Patrick’s is in the greens.”
The drama starts from the very first tee and never stops, rollicking between, around, up and down the heaving dunes or across massive blowout bunkers. The scenery on every hole is captivating, including expansive views of Tramore Beach and the northwest Irish coast toward the North Atlantic.
The entire site was used, turning the land that once held 36 holes into 18 on the choicest routing that twice emerges from the dunesland onto the coast of Sheephaven Bay – first at Nos. 4 and 5 and a second time at 14 and 15.
Click on images of No. 5 above to enlarge: A view from the tee (left) and a closer look at the green.
“That’s the unique thing about St. Patrick’s – the scale is enormous and the fairways are extremely wide and you don’t see a lot of other golf holes except the hole that you’re on,” said John Casey. “A lot of links in Ireland, the depth of linksland from the coast to the farmland is quite narrow, but the depth that we have here is quite wide and allows us to put four or five holes in a row and all in dunesland and back from the coast.”
The course, for now, is exclusively for walkers with no buggies available.
“The property is more than 270 acres, dominated by a large hill in the center that rises more than 100 feet above the bay,” Doak told Golf.com. “One of the tricks to the routing was to get up there to enjoy the view without building any inferior holes on the way to the top.”
There aren’t any inferior holes. Each one will keep you engaged and offers a unique challenge that even the best players aren’t likely to win against par every time. You’ll be faced with approaches and pitches and putts you’ve never encountered before. Doak (to the surprise of nobody) did not shy away from building drama in and around the greens – often massive with contours that might sometimes leave you scratching your head. And if the greens aren’t test enough, the run-offs into deep pits will take a toll on any tentative efforts.
Coming up short left of the par-5 sixth green presented a putt through a valley that gave a clear view to the pin. While it looked straightforward enough, the ball tumbled on a roller-coaster ride of four or five huge breaks in both directions before taking a sudden sharp left turn away from the hole. Par is not guaranteed from adjacent the green in regulation.
The 11th green has a narrow shelf front to back on the right that sits 6 feet above the rest of the widest green on the golf course and requires bravery and precision to hit when the hole is located up there (which it was when we played it).
Click on images of No. 14 to enlarge: A view from the tee toward Sheephaven Bay (left), the approach shot, and the green as seen from behind.
The view from the 14th tee toward the water is breathtaking and distracts from the task of getting the drive out far enough and positioned just so to be able to get a peek of the small green tucked around the corner.
The par-4 16th (534 from the tips but “only” 487 from the regular tees) plays downhill all the way and with the prevailing wind from the top of Magheramgorgan dune to a fairway wider than a football field. But even with the day’s most perfect strikes with driver and 3-wood, the slope in front sent the ball left of the green pin high.
The 18th looks like a fairly pedestrian drivable par-4, with a narrow avenue to reach the green. Two yawning bunkers punish anything too far left, and a tee shot that drifts right will find itself in what could be called an “Abyss of Sin” far deeper than St. Andrews’ valley. Go long over the green and the fescued crater behind it is unforgiving.
The shame of St. Patrick’s is that most visitors aren’t likely to spend enough time at Rosapenna to truly get to know the course and learn to handle its many challenges. It’s not a place you show up to post a score, but instead walk away with an experience that is hard to forget.
It gives Donegal its first trophy course to lure golfers to the less-traveled Northwest.
The swift acclaim has already boosted Rosapenna – which will host its second Irish Legends Tour event presented by the Paul McGinley Foundation on the Old Tom Morris course Aug. 18-20 – on the must-play golf itinerary in Ireland. It gives Donegal its first trophy course to lure golfers to the less-traveled Northwest that can feature Ballyliffin, Port Salon and North West among other Donegal links gems in relative proximity to Northern Ireland attractions Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock.
Pre-COVID, John Casey said about 70 percent of Rosapenna’s customers came from the island of Ireland with the majority of the rest split about equally between North America and Germany. With golf undergoing a unique growth spurt during the pandemic, the number of international travelers from North America, England and Germany has grown to about 50 percent. Europeans often come to stay the week at the hotel, while American golf travelers tend to stay a couple of nights and play all three courses before moving on to other venues.
St. Patrick’s is worth the effort to get there.
Top: A view from behind the green on the par-3 third.
Photos: Scott Michaux, Global Golf Post
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