To know, from the very start of a golf project that if the result isn’t a course worthy of being ranked in the top five in so golf-rich a country as Ireland, the project will basically be a failure, must be daunting, even for someone with the track record and self-confidence of Tom Doak.
But in essence, that was the situation facing Doak when he was commissioned to build a new course on the St Patrick’s Links site, adjacent to the long-established golf resort of Rosapenna in County Donegal, to Ireland’s far northwest. St Patrick’s was originally developed as a 36-hole complex by local hotelier Dermot Walsh: legendary Irish architect Eddie Hackett and former Royal County down assistant pro Joanne O’Haire designed the two courses. A Dublin-based developer bought the site in the early 2000s and commissioned Nicklaus Design to build new golf courses; the Nicklaus crew had been on site only a week in 2008, just in time to clear the vegetation from a swathe of the site when the key lender, Bank of Ireland, ran into difficulties, and the project had to be abandoned.
The site lay fallow for several years. Ownership was transferred to NAMA, the National Asset Management Agency, created by the Irish government in 2009 in response to the financial crisis, and it was finally sold to the Casey family, owners of Rosapenna, in late 2012. Architect Doak was engaged early on, and the routing was largely finalised during 2013, but construction of the golf course was deferred for some years, finally getting under way during 2018. Most of the greens were built during 2019, and although the Covid pandemic meant that Doak was unable to return to site during 2020, the on-site crew of Eric Iverson, Clyde Johnson and Angela Moser were able to finish the job.
The five-year gap between finalising the routing and starting the build can partiallly be explained by our starting point. In truth, Rosapenna had no particular need of more golf. With its Old Tom Morris course – which in fact includes work by Tom, James Braid, Harry Colt and Pat Ruddy – the Ruddy-designed Sandy Hills course, and the Coastguard nine, the original back nine holes of the Morris course, plus a popular pitch and putt, the resort had plenty of golf to satisfy its customers. The only real point of building another course at Rosapenna was if it proved to be a true marquee facility, elevating the resort – and for that matter, golf in Donegal as a whole – to another level. Ruddy’s Sandy Hills typically ranks in the top twenty courses on the island of Ireland: clearly, if St Patrick’s was to be worth building, it had to be substantially better than that.
Well, it is. On Doak’s website is a page entitled ‘Renaissance’s Top Ten Courses’, the result of a poll of the firm’s employees. Of those ten, I have seen six, and in my opinion St Patrick’s is certainly better than five of them. Only Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, which up to now I have cited as my favourite modern golf course in the world, can compete with it; I have not yet decided which I prefer. I am not a huge fan of golf course rankings; but I feel very comfortable in asserting that St Patrick’s will, in time, be very, very high up in any credible ranking of the world’s best courses.
What makes it so good? Doak’s mantra has always been ‘Great land produces great courses’ and St Patrick’s is, I think, close to being the best piece of golfing land I have ever seen. Never in my life have I seen ground movement like this; when you combine the astonishing topography with the beauty of Donegal, the views of the Atlantic and the variety of different environments that the site encompasses, it can’t have been hard for the architect to see the potential in this land.
St Patrick’s spells out what golfers are in for from the very start. Walk from the two trailers that constitute the course’s temporary clubhouse (an actual one will follow in 2023) to the first tee, and you are presented with an opening shot into the most heaving ground I have ever seen on a golf course. On most big dune links courses, this sort of stuff is pushed to the side, the holes routed through the flatter valleys: Doak’s bravery in offering such a sight from the first tee must be respected. Most architects have generally adhered to the theory outlined by Harry Colt – “a fairly long, plain-sailing hole for the first one”. Doak, it would appear, does not. The approach that follows is, by contrast, reasonably sane, though a dune that cuts in on the left-hand side rather, as does the hill on the second hole at Hollinwell, means the green will favour an approach from the right.
Although there is nothing quite so astounding as the first in the rest of the round, the remarkable ground movement continues throughout. It is a beautiful irony that the only fairway that does not contain a huge contour is the 534-yard par-four sixteenth, which falls a hundred feet from the top of the enormous dune called Magheramgorgan (also the name of the former Hackett course), the highest point of the round.
Doak’s routing is perhaps the central strength of the golf course. At Pacific Dunes, in order to get the golfer to the ocean multiple times and in different directions, he requires the golfer to go on a couple of rather circuitous walks. They are not especially long, but for me at least, they felt odd and affected the way the course flowed. At Barnbougle, a narrower patch of linksland and with the clubhouse in the middle, both nines are effectively out and back – a simpler routing but one that felt more instinctive to me. St Patrick’s mixes the two: the greater depth of the dunesland means that the architect can explore the property in a more varied way, but the course goes to the water twice, from either end. The first visit to the shore, at the fourth hole, is a grand ‘reveal’ which reminded me of the walk from the fourth green to the fifth tee at Barnbougle. It is a fabulous view, although anyone brave (or foolish) enough to play the hole from the 555-yard back tee should probably focus on the carry to the short grass rather than the view.
Once clear of the fourth tee, the variety of the site and course starts to become clear. The first three holes are played in among the big dunes, and are classic ‘isolated’ holes, with nothing other than one’s immediate surroundings in view. The area at the centre of the site is more open: at first glance, it appears to be less dramatic, but only the most single-minded dune-lover could fail to be inspired by the contours that reveal themselves. Perhaps the blandest land on the entire property is to be found in the drive zone of the par-five sixth. By coincidence, this land was among that cleared by the Nicklaus crew during their short stay: cleverly, Doak has left the cleared area (which, ten years on, has been shaped by wind and vegetation) as a ‘Hell’s Half-Acre’ style feature. The rise up to the green, though, and the substantial hump that fronts it, are far from bland.
Again on the seventh, the view from the elevated tee suggests there is not that much going on on the hole. Even once in the fairway, it seems fairly level: it is only when the golfer gets within 100 yards or so of the green that the valley in front, the rise to the bunker that protects the front left of the putting surface, and the deep depression in which the green is sited becomes obvious.
The course returns to Sheephaven Bay with a bang on the fourteenth. After a downhill tee shot, the hole turns to the right, and the tucked green means that the flag is invisible until the golfer is quite close. A long drive indeed will be needed to get a sight of the pin with the second. The steeply uphill but extremely short par-three fifteenth might not appeal to Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser (who is famously averse to uphill one-shot holes), but few others will fail to appreciate its drama.
The home hole might seem, at first, a rather low-key finish. Only 361 yards from the back tee and over ground that is mostly relatively level (by St Patrick’s standards) it lacks immediate drama. But miss the approach to front right (the most common miss in golf) and the drama will appear: a hollow, twenty or thirty feet deep, and with short grass to the greenside, so simply coming up a foot short will see the ball down in the abyss. A long thin bunker sits at the back of this hollow: the elevation change from front to back of it must be ten feet easily.
St Patrick’s is a truly magnificent golf course, one that will surely be acclaimed as among the finest on the planet. As might be guessed when land that previously houses two courses is used for one, it is enormous, and an extremely long, tough walk: anyone wanting a 36-hole day there will need to be in first-rate shape. And I am slightly worried that classic, low-to-the-ground links golf will be discouraged by the sheer scale of the contour: why try to work out how the ball will react running over an enormous mound when one can simply fly it over? The course is still very young, and head greenkeeper George Helly has a big job on trying to battle the poa annua for which the Irish climate is so perfect and to keep the surfaces fescue dominant. But these quibbles notwithstanding, it is a course any golfer interested in how good the game can be should see.
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.