The St Patrick’s Links at Rosapenna: Believe the hype for Ireland’s first new golf course since 2009

When Kevin Markham first heard Tom Doak was designing an Irish links, he had goosebumps for a week. The rollercoaster 1st is an immediate contender for best opening hole on the island, he reckons. Now read on...
The St Patrick’s Links at Rosapenna: Believe the hype for Ireland’s first new golf course since 2009

The 15th hole at the new St Patrick's Links in Rosapenna, the first new golf course to open in Ireland since 2009. Photograph: Clyde Johnson

In the coming months, you will undoubtedly read and hear about the new St Patrick’s Links at Rosapenna, about how incredible it is, how it is a game-changer for Irish golf, and how it will make waves in the various national and world rankings.

I have played the course and I won’t dispute any of the above. It is a magical links with fire in its belly and genius in its soul. Ireland has world-famous golf courses adorned with the names of legendary designers that stretch back to Old Tom himself (including Rosapenna), but the names of the modern greats are a touch scarce on the ground.

We have a wealth of well-known Irish designers — including the revered Eddie Hackett, Mel Flanagan, Paddy Merrigan, and the renowned Pat Ruddy — but the world of architecture belongs to a new breed. Their designs have steered golf course architecture in a more dynamic direction and their names add considerable weight to the inescapable ‘bucket list destination’.

Many readers of you reading this may not consider yourself design aficionados — I include myself in that group — preferring simply to visit a course and play your best. There’s nothing wrong with that but there is a significance to the opening of St Patrick’s that reverberates well beyond Irish shores.

Just as golfers from around the world would travel to Ireland to play the old masters (e.g. Ballybunion, Portmarnock, Royals County Down and Portrush) so more will pursue a trail blazed by the new, modern, masters of design. Donegal already has two courses designed by Pat Ruddy (Rosapenna’s Sandy Hills and Ballyliffin’s Glashedy), but it now has one course redesigned by Gil Hanse (Narin & Portnoo) and the brand new St Patrick’s Links, designed by Tom Doak.

The significance of this is huge: Donegal, and Ireland as a whole, has now become a far greater attraction for travelling golfers. The Tom Doak name will do that. Co Donegal may have brandished close to a dozen links courses but for many visitors, it tended to lag behind the more smartly marketed south-west, the obvious Dublin/east coast hub, and the royalty of Northern Ireland. The range of Donegal’s links courses covered all the bases — from the old (Bundoran) to the new (Sandy Hills), from the classic (Portsalon) to the quirky (Cruit Island), from the subtle (North West) to the muscular (Ballyliffin Glashedy) — but St Patrick’s adds a whole new tier to the cake and adds a cherry on top for good measure.

But, to be clear, what was here already and across the county made Donegal one of Ireland’s great golf destinations… and that made it one of the world’s great golf destinations. Now, with both Tom Doak and Gil Hanse on the design sheet, international golfers will be salivating.

This is the first new course on our island since Cobh Golf Club moved to its new home, in Marino Point, in 2009. It is the first new 18-hole Irish links since Doonbeg, in 2001. Carne added the sensational Kilmore nine in 2013, designed by Ally McIntosh, but St Patrick’s is 18 holes and it is brimming with intrigue.

When I first heard Tom Doak was designing an Irish links, I had goosebumps for a week. The revered architects of old (Mackenzie, Old Tom, Colt, Ross) have left us with many of the world’s best courses and there is little doubt how the work of Tom Doak will be regarded in years to come.

Based on St Patrick’s alone, it’s fair to say golfers will cross oceans to play one of his courses. That is the man’s (and his team’s) reputation. He has designed dozens of golf courses but you can’t tell me that a designer who creates a reversible golf course (The Loop, at Forest Dunes Resort, Michigan), among other modern masterpieces (e.g. Ballyneal, Barnbougle, and Bandon Dunes… and that’s only the B’s), isn’t a designer to be sought out when the opportunity arises.

In golf terms, he may be the equivalent of Antoni Gaudí. And no, that’s not an over-the-top assessment. Come and play St Patrick’s Links and experience 18 holes laid out over one of golf’s most magical landscapes. It feels vast, open and yet enclosed, testing but never cruel, adventurous but sensible, creative but deliberate. Most of all, it feels subtle and effortless. It even feels obvious and that may well be the key to Doak’s philosophy of minimalism. Leave the canvas alone and only add the brush strokes that turn that canvas into art.

The St Patrick’s Links is surrounded by duneland, much of which is not part of the property. As such, the course appears almost lost within endless dunes that only add to the scale of the canvas.

The Tom Doak course becomes the third 18-hole links at Rosapenna. The views of Errigal and Muckish, as well as the bay and beaches are enough to lure anyone, but with three quality courses, a stellar hotel, and numerous other courses in the region, this is a golfing mecca.

The design of St Patrick’s started in 2018, although Doak had ideas for these dunes long before that. Stretched over some 320 acres, two 18-hole courses had laid fallow for more than a decade. Designed by Eddie Hackett and Joanne O’Haire, the courses were due to be redesigned by Jack Nicklaus in late 2006. The project barely got started before it ended and the courses closed. Over the following years the only activity was a lone man and his mower keeping the fairways cut to some degree. The Caseys, of Rosapenna fame, acquired the property from NAMA in 2012, and so a new chapter began.

The official ‘build’ commenced in mid-2019 and two years later — at the end of June, 2021 — it opened. Doak was able to use elements of the original Hackett/O’Haire courses and what the Jack Nicklaus team had left behind, but this is a new course, plain and simple. And it is a beauty.

What, you ask, makes this links so special? There are four obvious elements:

Hole & Landscape Variety

The towering dunes of the opening three holes hide the rippling fairways that then flee to the west, towards a mother dune around which several holes entwine. Those opening holes lead you inexorably towards the sea which is on full display from the 4th tee. This is the big reveal, the most dramatic moment of many. The views and sea are cast before you like a deck of cards spread in a perfect fan. The air fizzes with ozone and ocean air. And from the 4th tee, you can see what is coming. Holes 4 and 5 stretch along the coastline below while holes 6, 15, and 16 lie inland of them. Look at those wide swathes of fairway galloping towards that mother dune. Look at those blow-out bunkers that pockmark the landscape like the moon. It combines the crafts of old with the brazenness of the new. It’s an adrenaline rush that makes you swing harder than you should.

Elsewhere, further inland, holes crash over the landscape: the par-4 7th, from a high tee, descends between more wave-rolling dunes to leave you with an approach that could be blind, while on the short uphill par-4 8th alongside you will see nothing more than the top of the flag. These are the shapes you will have to deal with and while most links courses (even the flatter ones such as Portmarnock and Royal Dublin) require repeat plays to appreciate them fully, St Patrick’s is both wide enough and adventurous enough that you could be playing two different courses depending on where your shots finish.

Greens

You won’t have played on or around greens like these — at least not in Ireland. Each shape is unique but it goes further than that as the greens and their broad surrounds are seamless, with run-offs, swales, and humps galore. The grasses are cut at the same height and that makes the greens appear larger than they are. As such, a ‘missed’ green will leave an intriguing recovery that can, in all likelihood, be played with a lob, a bump-and-run or a putt from 20 yards away. My opening putt was played from that distance and the roll on the ball was perfect. I simply couldn’t tell where the fringe became green... and neither could the ball.

Even more pronounced is the par-3 17th, where the flag appears to hover in the middle of the fairway which stretches beyond and up towards the 18th tee. It is an illusion and, on first play, you don’t know where the green begins and ends. It is an extra dimension that adds to the appeal and shows how Doak teases you… and yet presents you with opportunities to explore your abilities.

The Fairways

Typically, they are generous — the Index 2 par-4 16th looks a mile wide as you stand on the 4th tee — but the endless contours and ripples guarantee you nothing. Balls do not automatically migrate to a flat spot which will leave you with different stances. It adds to the challenge but that width also adds to the accessibility.

The Bunkers

Ripped, raw, and ragged, and with numerous blow-out dunes and waste areas around the site you’re never sure which ‘bunkers’ are natural and which are not. They are not invasive, they do not swamp the greens but they are called hazards for a reason. If you find one it is unlikely you played a good shot. As you drop down from the 4th tee keep an eye out for the enormous blow-out: it is some 20 feet deep and 60 yards wide. It is not the only one here.

The Best Holes

An unfair heading for sure. Even the less dramatic and more inland stretch (holes 10 to 13) possesses intrigue and calls for confident shot-making, especially around the greens. That, however, is true of every green here.

The rollercoaster 1st is an immediate contender for best opening hole on the island. It is a captivating and deceptive tee shot that heads blindly into a maze of dunes. The green lurks behind a big shoulder and has an amphitheatre feel. The sharp dogleg par-4 14th (the only serious dogleg here) drops down towards the sea before whipping right to a green perched above the beach. It promises two dramatic shots. The 120-yard uphill par-3 15th is captivating and demands absolute precision as you head towards the top of that mother dune. Overall, however, the run from the 4th to the 9th steals the show for its brilliant and intuitive design.

There are so many elements which make this a special place but perhaps I am overawed by the fact Ireland has a new 18-hole links for the first time in 20 years, and it has been designed by Tom Doak. It is thrill-a-minute golf, pure and simple.

The good news for Irish tourism is that many international golfers who believe they have ‘done’ Ireland, now have an excellent reason to return, while those searching for their next bucket list destination have just found it. Irish golfers, too, will be eager to visit and they will discover exactly how good the golf offering is at Rosapenna. After all, golf has been played here since 1893, and it keeps getting better and better.

Green Fee Rates

For Golf Ireland members there is an online rate for each of the three links of €75, up to the end of October. You can play all three within a 10-day period for €195.

Visit Rosapenna.ie for details and booking.

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