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A game-changer for golf in Ireland

Rosapenna complete holy trinity with Tom Doak’s St Patrick’s masterpiece


A modern masterpiece in a truly spectacular corner of Donegal: Rosapenna Golf Resort

A modern masterpiece in a truly spectacular corner of Donegal: Rosapenna Golf Resort

A modern masterpiece in a truly spectacular corner of Donegal: Rosapenna Golf Resort

BUILD it, they will come.

So having asked one of the world’s leading golf architects to create a new links golf course on idyllic terrain in one of the most spectacularly beautiful corners of Donegal, Rosapenna Golf Resort is about to become a true game-changer for Irish golf.

The oldest golf resort in Ireland, currently ranked No 7 in the top 100 golf resorts in Britain and Ireland by Golf World magazine, it was founded in 1893 shortly after Lord Leitrim invited Old Tom Morris to design a nine-hole course on the grounds of his home in Carrigart.

It was only when Old Tom was brought out for a trip around the locality and excitedly spied the massive dunes and pristine links land at Rosapenna that plans to build an 18-hole course emerged.

It became a golfing Mecca for the idle rich of the day, but it was not until Frank Casey Snr bought the hotel in 1981, which at the time featured one golf course with sheep wire around the greens, that the new Rosapenna was born.

The Old Tom Morris course crossed the main road several times, so after Pat Ruddy’s highly regarded Sandy Hills Links opened in 2003, Casey Snr brought all 36 holes to the beachside of the road with the reconfigured Old Tom Morris links opening in September 2009.

In November 2012, the Caseys bought 370 acres, a five-minute drive from the hotel at the Carrigart end of the property, now occupied by St Patrick’s Links.

The terrain was originally home to two courses created by Eddie Hackett and Joanne O’Haire for the Walsh family, who ran the nearby Carrigart Hotel.

Things changed in 2006 when the courses were sold to a developer who commissioned Jack Nicklaus to build his first links in Ireland.

But the project collapsed just six weeks after construction began due to lack of money, and while the bank paid a local man to cut the grass and locals occasionally played casual golf there, it remained abandoned, blowing in the wind, until the Caseys bought the site from Nama in 2012.

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Finding the right man to do the site justice was the next challenge, and the Casey’s approached Doak, an old friend of the resort, and formed a partnership that saw the American reimagine the old layout and begin to turn 36 rough holes into 18 beauties in November 2019.

The result is a modern masterpiece of minimalist magic in a dreamlike dunescape that has to be seen to be believed.

It’s called “St. Patrick’s Links by Tom Doak”, and when it opens next week, the name of the architect alone will bring golfers flocking to this gorgeous corner of Donegal.

Doak is regarded as something of a design savant with six of his remote, sandy creations ranked among the top 100 courses in the world by Golf Magazine.

Pacific Dunes in Oregon, Ballyneal in Colorado, Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand are already places of pilgrimage for the golfing cognoscenti, and St Patrick’s Links makes Rosapenna a 54-hole resort – a far cry from the early days when the steamer service that worked the north coast first brought golfing tourists to this shimmering corner of Donegal in 1893.

The genesis of St Patrick’s has been slow, but it’s been well worth the wait as it wends its way up through the dunes, offering magnificent views of mountain, sky and sea as it snakes over marvellous golfing terrain.

Buffeted by sea breezes and protected not by deep rough but lovingly crafted waste bunkers, it rises and falls like the Atlantic waves, hiding subtle dips, swales and flowing run-offs as you play from expansive fairways to billowing green sites that look to have been merely found in nature.

“Tom’s involvement here goes back to 2006 when the photographer Larry Lambrecht, a mutual friend, introduced us,” explains Frank Casey Jnr, who runs the resort with his brother John and his father, Frank Snr. “He knew some of the original holes, but nothing now remains of the Nicklaus imprint.

“We’ve used the existing corridors on the second, seventh, eighth, 12th and 16th on the O’Haire-Hackett imprint, but it is essentially a brand new golf course.

“We didn’t think the land was as good as it was until we really started to look at it closely and realised that Tom could do something very special and totally unique.

“Length was not a factor at all in his thinking. It’s 6,930 yards, par-71, and he could easily have found a lot more than just another 70 yards to bring it over the 7,000-yard mark.”

Only the wildest drive will have you looking for your ball in the rough, for Doak has plotted an ingenious route, leaving you ample room to find the fairway and play a tempting second to a series of green sites that look like they were created by Mother Nature.

It’s got a wonderful variety of holes from the short par-three fifth, protected by wonderful waste bunkers, medium-length par-fours and sweeping par-fives offering wonderful views of Errigal, Muckish and the shimmering sea to testing par-fours.

It all ends with the uphill, par-three 17th with its vast green and the delightful 18th where a deep swale short right of the green will gobble up the approach shot that comes up short and leave you a difficult pitch to another wonderful green site.

Like any work of art, it changes with the light and has to be seen to be believed. In short, it’s a modern masterpiece that tests every club in the bag and the six inches between your ears, all the while charming you and encouraging you to come back again for another golfing feast.

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