For years, Tom Doak has longed to build a golf course in the seaside dunes of Ireland. Now he will get his chance: the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort in County Donegal, Ireland, has agreed on terms to partner with Doak to design and build 18 new holes on a tract of dunesland where the 36-hole St. Patrick’s Golf Links currently sits dormant.
Doak finalized his routing in March 2018. Based on that vision, the Casey family, which owns Rosapenna, decided to move forward with Doak’s firm Renaissance Golf Design. Last summer RGD built, irrigated, and grassed two greens, the 14th and 15th.
The Caseys and RGD plan to break ground on the rest of the St. Patrick’s course this summer. By the end of the year, they expect to finish the bulk of the work; by the end of 2020, they hope to host limited preview play. “Quite honestly,” Casey Jr. told The Fried Egg, “we’ve all played a bit of ‘dirt golf’ out there, and while it’s quite a good time, we’re committed to being careful about when we first let golfers experience the finished links.”
RGD associate Eric Iverson, who in 2007 made improvements to the Strand Nine of the Old Tom Morris Links at Rosapenna, will run the project. He will have help from agronomist Gordon Irvine and from Clyde Johnson of Cunnin’ Golf. In addition, the Caseys have hired Donegal native George Helly, previously of Bandon Dunes and Tara Iti, to serve as the first superintendent of the new St. Patrick’s Links.
Over a century of golf
Golf in the remote locale of Rosapenna began in 1892, when Old Tom Morris staked out a course along Sheephaven Bay, near the town of Downings, Ireland.
In 1981, Frank and Hilary Casey bought the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort for 500,000 pounds. As Casey Sr. told Martin Kaufmann Golfweek in 2017, the hotel and course were “badly run down.” Over the past four decades, the Caseys—eventually with the help of sons Frank Jr. and John, now in their thirties—have improved and expanded the resort.
Today, nine of Old Tom’s seaside holes remain intact, joining with the modern Strand Nine to make up the Old Tom Morris Links. The resort also includes Sandy Hills, a burly links designed by Pat Ruddy in 2003.
“Rosapenna has been in our family for nearly 40 years,” said Frank Casey Jr. “Our father has consistently added to what we can offer our guests over the years, and we plan on continuing that trend.”
With the addition of Doak’s St. Patrick’s course, Rosapenna hopes to become a top-shelf golf destination in Ireland and an alternative to the better-known, busier courses to the south.
A rare property
It’s lucky that St. Patrick’s can be developed at all. In the 1990s, as a member state of the European Union, Ireland had to render off-limits nearly all of its undeveloped dunesland. St. Patrick’s, however, was exempt from this legislation, as it already housed 36 holes of golf designed by Eddie Hackett and Joanne O’Haire.
The courses never garnered much praise or business. In 2005, the Relton Development group brought in Jack Nicklaus to revitalize St. Patrick’s, but the recession scuttled that plan. The Caseys, as owners of the neighboring Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort, became the obvious potential buyers of the property. They waited a few years for the price to come down, and in 2012 they purchased St. Patrick’s for a reported amount between €1 and €1.5 million.
Ever since then, rumor has connected Renaissance Golf Design to the property. With construction finally approaching, Doak and the Caseys spoke to The Fried Egg about their plans.
Doak’s routing will explore of about 300 acres of sandy terrain along Sheephaven Bay. “You see the water more when you’re back away from it a little bit,” Doak said, “either playing toward it or just up at more elevation.”
To Doak, though, the most exciting feature of the landscape is not the ocean but a nearby stretch of protected pasture ground.
“When you play the early holes, you’re looking at that. And when you play some of the finishing holes, you’re also looking at that in the distance. It’s just like a magnet. You got the bay on one side and you got those dunes on the other, and you’re looking at the dunes. That’s how good they are.”
Focusing on 18 great holes
The property has room for two courses, but Doak feels that 36 holes are too many. On a large hill in the middle of the site, several of the old St. Patrick’s fairways sit awkwardly side by side. “It looks crazy when you look at it from a distance,” Doak said. “It’s like, really? Just up, down, up, down.”
So he encouraged the Caseys to pursue 18 great holes rather than wedging in 36. “One of the things I’ve learned from [Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley developer] Mike Keiser is, you never worry about what the next golf course is going to be. You just focus on making this one as good as you can.”
Besides, it’s unclear whether the resort could support another 36 holes of premium golf right away. Rosapenna is not easy to get to. It fits better into a trip that includes Royal Portrush and Royal County Down in Northern Ireland than one that swings through the famous courses on the southwestern coast.
Still, Doak and the Caseys feel the time is ripe for the northwest of Ireland to emerge as a competitive golf destination. The road from Ballybunion to Lahinch has grown crowded with Americans, and those seeking a more authentic-feeling experience may begin to look north.
Doak expects that Rosapenna will appeal to people who want to “get away from the crowds and the super-expensive places, and go somewhere where it’s a little more affordable and the golf is still really good, and you feel like you’re in the countryside of Ireland. You don’t see tour buses full of golfers.”
“It’s not unrealistic to say that this is one of, if not the last truly great undeveloped links site in Ireland,” Frank Casey Jr. added. “So we are beyond excited to see Tom and Renaissance Golf Design work amongst these dunes.”