Even in straitened times, there is still room for visionaries, says Dermot Gilleece
Towards the end of 2006, the unlikely figure of Jack Nicklaus braved the sharp bite of winter while observing heavy machinery stripping the linksland of St Patrick's in north-west Donegal. At the same time, on a spectacular inland site to the south-east, work was more advanced in the development of a £35m golf resort overlooking Lough Erne.
The €90m vision of a modern links with luxury houses and a six-star hotel was geared to reach reality at an official opening on St Patrick's Day 2009. That was when Jim Treacy, owner of the up-and-running Lough Erne Resort, was preparing for a trip to Augusta to watch his touring professional, Rory McIlroy, make his Masters debut. After it seemed that ill-fated Irish golf developments could deliver no more surprises, both these operations are in the news for contrasting reasons. Where St Patrick's has been bought by its neighbours in Rosapenna for a figure believed to be no more than €2m, Lough Erne is to play host to the world's G8 Summit next June.
The fact that his native Fermanagh has a location worthy of accommodating such a high-powered gathering is a tribute to Treacy's vision. As a cruel consequence of recessionary times, however, the resort is now in administration and can be bought for a seemingly knockdown price of £10m.
It's in the nature of things that wiseacres are invariably on hand when brave plans come unstuck. Yet the following prediction is nonetheless fascinating, because of its timing. "A crisis is looming in Irish golf. Through a combination of over-supply and weak tourist figures, the situation is especially acute in the east of the country, where facilities are already experiencing difficulties." I wrote that in December 2004, never imagining the real carnage which lay in wait.
Almost two years later, those words were forgotten as I watched the commanding figure of Nicklaus against the backdrop of Sheephaven Bay at "the opportunity of a lifetime for any golf course architect." Then he mused: "I've always considered these islands to be the home of golf and for years I've wanted to do a seaside course. This is it."
It was, in fact, his third visit that year to a 370-acre property which had been bought from Dermot Walsh of the Carrigart Hotel for €11m by the McCafferty family of nearby Milford. In the light of the latest developments, there is rich irony in how Richard McCafferty, an estate agent, got the idea for the project while playing the short sixth on the Old Tom Morris links at Rosapenna.
That was where his focus settled on St Patrick's, only a short distance away, and the notion struck him of building a Jack Nicklaus course there. And though the Bear was a month from his 67th birthday, he accepted the challenge, despite having 60 other design projects on hand, including Killeen Castle which had secured the 2011 Solheim Cup.
Within a few months, however, money had dried up and a grand project lay in ruins. Yet Nicklaus thought so highly of the St Patrick's site that when I spoke to him about it in December 2007 he vowed to bring it to a successful conclusion.
Not even the great Nicklaus, however, could buck the recession. So, St Patrick's ended up in NAMA from where it has now been resurrected by Frank Casey, owner of the Rosapenna Hotel and 45 holes of splendid linksland comprising the Old Tom Morris Links, the Pat Ruddy-designed Sandy Hills, and the so-called Coastguard Nine. From the time golf was first played in the area 120 years ago, it's as if nature ordained that Rosapenna and St Patrick's should be together. The nine Valley holes along the beach at Rosapenna, designed by Old Tom in 1893 and later embellished by James Braid, could be linked to the St Patrick's land in a splendid 18.
In such an arrangement, the overall capacity of the new facility would be 72 holes rather than 81. Either way, the view is that St Patrick's could best deliver a high-quality 27 holes to replace the present, decidedly moderate 36. "Our long-term objective would be to bring the overall development up to the standard of our existing courses," said Frank Casey Jnr, secretary/manager of Rosapenna where the 66-bedroom hotel had 16 new suites added four years ago. "With about 1,000 yards of frontage (along the beach) between St Patrick's and ourselves, joining them together made a lot of sense to us. At the moment, however, we have no plans; no architect in mind. Our main focus was to secure the land and it was quite a struggle getting it over the line with NAMA.
"A greatly expanded venue would seriously increase our maintenance costs, so we need time to assess our
changed circumstances. Nothing remains from the Nicklaus visits. Basically all he did was to strip the ground preparatory to staking it out. Both of the existing St Patrick's courses remain playable, however, and we hope to have them open for limited play some time in 2013."
Whatever their plans, the acquisition of such a magnificent site has to be good news, especially for the tourist industry. Meanwhile, Jim Treacy is viewing the G8 decision as more of a vindication of his foresight than as a personal blow.
"If I had the ability to put something like that on the ground, I'd like think I have the ability to get the resort back from where it is," he said. He certainly won the acclaim of an attendance of 4,500 on a July day in 2009 when the course was launched with the 'Duel on the Lough', an exhibition match in which McIlroy beat Pádraig Harrington. It was when McIlroy, despite being a little in awe of his rival, still managed to reduce the opening 367-yard par-four to a drive, wedge and four-foot putt before driving the green on the downhill 396-yard seventh.
Now, in very different circumstances, the businessman is looking to the world No 1 as a powerful ally. "Rory has given me his word that he will step back on board when all of this passes by," he said. "I can tell you he's behind me 100 per cent."
Treacy's many friends in golf will hope his optimism is well-founded.