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st patricks links

Classic course: St Patrick’s Links, Rosapenna

Tom Doak’s masterpiece has not just put Rosapenna but the whole of Donegal on the radar. Expect an overdue flood of tourists from all around the world in the coming years, writes Dan Murphy, with St Patrick’s Links the centrepiece of every trip

 

First, in the 1500s, Scotland had its St Andrews. Centuries later, dating back to 1887, England could call on Royal St George’s. Seven years after that came Wales’s Royal St David’s. And now, at last, Ireland has St Patrick’s Links, courtesy of the extraordinary new course created by Tom Doak at Rosapenna, which opened in 2021.

For those who have lost track over the years of the golf available at Rosapenna, located in the north-west of Ireland, about an hour’s drive from Derry, it is worth a refresher on the array of seaside holes that we now have to savour.

First there is the – not entirely accurately titled – Old Tom Morris course, which in its current form also incorporates some work of James Braid, Harry Colt and Pat Ruddy.

What was originally the back nine of the Old Tom Morris course, played on higher land away from the coast, is now a separate entity, titled the Coastguard Nine.

Then there is the Sandy Hills course, designed by Ruddy in the 1990s and until very recently Rosapenna’s pride and joy. There is also a pitch and putt.

And now there is St Patrick’s Links, which occupies dramatic and expansive prime linksland overlooking Sheephaven Bay. It might just be the best new course to open in the British Isles in the last century.

The 1st tee is a couple of miles away from the main Rosapenna Resort. The land has long been marked for a golf course – or two to be precise.

A local hotelier first commissioned Eddie Hackett and Joanne O’Haire, an assistant professional at Royal County Down, to design two courses on this land.

Then a Dublin developer stepped in, acquired the site and Nicklaus Design were appointed. They were precisely a week into their work in 2008 when the repercussions of the financial crash saw the project abandoned with the land effectively transferred into government ownership. That was that until 2012, when the Casey family, owners of neighbouring Rosapenna, bought the land.

Doak was commissioned as the architect, the decision was taken to build one course rather than two and construction eventually began in 2018. Thanks to the pandemic, it was finished in 2020, although Doak was unable to visit that year.

Clyde Johnson, one of Doak’s key on-site lieutenants, described it as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to work with a piece of linksland that is surely the equal of anything else on earth, either developed or undeveloped.

St Patrick's Links

First, there is the sheer scale, and the rarest of luxuries of being able to pick the best playing corridors on a site that, but for the concatenation of fate, could easily have 36 holes on it by now.

Next is the land itself and a rolling dunescape that heaves and pitches as far as the eye can see.

Then there is the unspoilt splendour of the Donegal setting – the blue ocean water, the miles of golden beach, the romantic village of Downings with its white buildings dotted across the distant hill and the nostalgic twinge of childhood seaside holidays.

The final ingredient is the architect, unrestrained by the owners and allowed to use the exceptional canvas as he saw fit. Nor was there any particular rush, with the forced break of the pandemic probably working further in St Patrick’s Links’ favour.

This is not a course built around some existing infrastructure. Instead, this is a course with no obvious compromise. It is a course where the golf comes first, which may sound obvious but is much less common than you might think. Doak conceived the routing and then it seems it was the Caseys’ problem to work out the rest.

For now, the facilities, including the car park, are temporary. That will undoubtedly put some off but for those of us who simply seek great golf, the minimalism and total lack of distraction are glorious – the focus is exclusively on the 18 holes. And what a links this is, starting from the moment you board the 1st tee.

It is a paradise of linksland, with a snaking fairway partially visible between mountainous dunes and the heaving topography.

It takes a moment to acclimatise, not least because play is conceivably possible in just about any direction. Yet the opening fairway is a good 60 yards wide at the 200-yard mark, an early clue on how this course is designed.

At any number of links on Ireland’s west coast, the wild joy of the landscape is tempered by holes that can tend towards the extreme. We should not need to be reminded that the wind seldom fails to blow in these parts.

St Patrick's Links

Here, Doak has created a course where the landing areas are highly generous, especially for those prepared – or compelled – to be less aggressive from the tee.

The routing takes the form of butterfly wings – two loops, the first of 11 holes and the second of the remaining seven, where you begin inland and then take a thrilling journey to the sea. The reveal on both loops is coruscating.

The first one comes after departing the green at the par-3 3rd and boarding the tee of the par 5 that follows. The second is after the 13th, when it feels like the whole of Donegal is within view on a clear day.

There are at least half a dozen moments that take the breath away on first sighting, but it is the architectural sophistication that will continue to offer deep pleasure to the discerning for countless rounds thereafter.

Take the subtlety of the short 17th, a bunker-less par 3 and at first glance the simplest of holes. Yet the contours and angles of the green, which has a shelf on the back right, make for endless conundrums. The absence of any rough within 30 yards of the putting surface ensures that redemption is always possible – and yet so often elusive.

In a world where the validation of a course can seemingly only come through championship status, it is beyond refreshing that Doak has seemingly designed St Patrick’s Links with exactly no regard for tournament golf.

Even from the tips, it doesn’t reach 7,000 yards (when it so easily could) and it is clear that Doak had entertainment, not the tour, in mind with the way he has presented the tees offering massive options.

Of course, in a location such as this, playability should be right at the top of the agenda because there will be plenty of wild days to contend with.

Throughout, there are half-par holes, whether in the form of short 4s or borderline 5s. As they play in all directions of the compass, on any given day the design will give with one hand while taking away with the other. Just the way it should be.

It seems unfair, and missing the point, to dwell on individual holes here, because it’s the way they all work with each other that creates the whole. St Patrick’s Links is playful one minute, offering you the chance of shaving 100 yards off a hole with a daring tee shot. Then the next it is all about subtlety, trying to manoeuvre your ball to an awkward corner of a green.

St Patrick's Links

The visuals are breath-taking, with wild blow-out bunkers built into dunes and spiky marram grasses shimmering in the breeze.

Even if your driving is inaccurate, overly ambitious or both, you will more often than not walk straight to your ball. And then you will most likely find yourself attempting an unwise recovery.

This will almost invariably be blind or at least partially obscured and result in you haring after your approach in the hope of gaining a view of it landing.

Most golfers find laying up difficult even when a swing is barely possible; here you are fooled into thinking you have not been punished for your sub-optimal drive.

The wisest will exercise discretion, even from a clean lie. By all means, take the shot on, but beware that Doak is not in the habit of making the game easy for you if you are playing from the wrong angle.

Time and again, you will reach the green only to survey a chip of significant complexity and realise that it would have been easier to play the shot from 100 yards away but with a preferential angle.

Doak saves a final flourish for the last hole, which convention dictates should be a long and demanding par 4, but is actually drivable, or close to it, from all but the back tees.

In front of you is an impossibly wide fairway, which eventually topples into a deep hollow, with the green on the far side, nestling against a dune.

The shot from this hollow, which is almost unmissable following a healthy clatter with driver from the tee, is not impossible but nor is it remotely appealing.

The shot from the left of the lunar fairway, such a tempting bail-out from the tee, is a similar story, with the shoulder of the greenside dune exactly where you don’t want it, either consuming an under-hit approach or callously shoving a stronger one off the far side of the green or even back into the dreaded hollow. It is a hole of rich strategy and, I suspect, one where the tortoise may often fare better than the hare.

For a course just a couple of years old, it plays beautifully. Already, the fairways are running, and the greens are firm, encouraging running shots and imaginative use of the contours.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about St Patrick’s Links is that it will only get better. The greens will get firmer, smoother and a little quicker over time.

The course will look even more comfortable in its surroundings with every passing season. And pretty soon, the most obvious tell that this is a new course will be the bricks and mortar that greet you on arrival.

But what a way to do it – build the course and then start thinking about the clubhouse. I know, it will never catch on.

Learn more

Go to rosapenna.ie to discover more about what the resort has to offer – on and off the course. Rosapenna re-opens for the 2024 season at the end of March.

The beautiful county of Donegal has much to offer besides, including the two links courses at Ballyliffin, Portsalon, Narin & Portnoo, Murvagh, North West and the cutest of nine-holers at Cruit Island.

Now have your say

Have you visited St Patrick’s Links? What did you make of Rosapenna’s newest creation. Let us know by leaving a comment on X.

Dan Murphy

Dan Murphy

Dan loves links golf, which doesn't mean he is very good at it. He is a four-handicapper at Alwoodley. A qualified journalist and senior editor with 25 years’ experience, he was the long-time editor of NCG. His passion is golf courses and he is the founding editor of NCG Top 100s course rankings. He loves nothing more than discovering and highlighting courses that are worthy of greater recognition.

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