No luck required in St. Patrick's Links' ascent

The Tom Doak design in County Donegal, Ireland, opened during the pandemic and managed to crack the world top-100 list for best courses — and it's only gotten better in three short years

Hole No. 14, Rosapenna Golf Resort's St. Patrick’s Links, County Donegal, Ireland.

In a world of instant gratification, success for a new golf course rarely comes more immediately than the kind enjoyed by St. Patrick’s Links, a Tom Doak design that debuted three years ago on June 25, 2021, at Rosapenna Golf Resort in County Donegal, Ireland. Just five months after opening, the course was ranked 55th on Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the World. Today it stands at No. 49, drawing rave reviews for its spectacular setting, heavily rumpled yet generous fairways, and intriguing green complexes. The First Call contributor Tom Mackin visited Rosapenna recently and spoke with director of golf Frank Casey Jr., whose family has owned the resort since 1981.

The First Call: Did you anticipate such early success for the course?
Frank Casey Jr.: My brother John and I knew how good it was going to be. We could see that early on, and even the guys would talk about it when they were out there working on it. But we kind of thought people are just going to stay one night and want to play just that course. But it's a real testament to the other two courses here (Old Tom Morris, which dates back to 1893, and Sandy Hills, which opened in 2003) that that's not the case. Over 85 percent of the people coming stay two or three night and play three rounds.  

TFC: Other than the quality of its design and setting, to what do you attribute that success?
FC: It’s hard to know how much of it is that the post-COVID sort of travel boom. People are getting out there now just full stop. We’d have love to opened it in a normal time and know how much you could attribute it to being the opening of St Patrick’s, which a huge amount of it is.

TFC: Was there any concern with the timing of the course opening? 
FC: We started construction in July of 2019. We always planned to open in 2021, but obviously COVID slowed us down with construction in 2020, so not being able to build things and seed it until later in that year was obviously a problem. And 2021 was still a COVID-affected year. We only opened for three months then (an estimated 5,000 rounds were played) because we had to close due to a government directive. Everyone opening a new course will probably say they opened it a year too early, but everyone opens because they are trying to generate business for the following year. I don’t know of any golf course that has waited until it’s truly perfect. Even now our course is still growing in, in certain places. If we didn’t open in 2021, there’s no press, no buzz, no word of mouth, no anything for 2022. It’s a real chicken and egg thing. It opened a little bit early, but not in a way that every single person who played felt that it wasn’t ready yet. It was our scheduled opening date and we wanted to stick to it.

Hole No. 4, Rosapenna Golf Resort's St. Patrick’s Links, County Donegal, Ireland.

TFC: How do you set a green fee for a new Tom Doak-designed course coming out of a pandemic?
FC: The first year we just priced it the same as our other two courses (200 Euro; $214). Then as soon as we got the world ranking, we just went up from there. Next year, St. Patrick’s is 280 Euros ($300) for a visitor, and the other two courses are still 200 Euros each. We also offer a Three Links Ticket for 550 Euros ($580) which includes a round on each of the courses.

TFC: What has been more valuable: having Doak as the designer or getting ranked so quickly in Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the World?
FC: In the short term, I would say the ranking. But I think long term, it would be Tom's name and his legacy with the other golf courses that he's built around the world. I think the rankings, especially with people coming out of COVID, it gives you instant pedigree, or brand recognition, that it's a world Top 100. And being ranked so high as well. It’s not like we scraped in between 90 and 100, and then fell out in the next ranking. We actually went up six spots (from 55 to 49), which is fantastic. To be at No. 49 has been a huge achievement, and for it to come so early has been phenomenal.

TFC: While Doak designed the layout, he had quite a team of shapers who worked on the project, didn’t he?
FC: Tom has just exploded in the past decade, so we were very lucky that we got him at the time we did. Same with the shapers that were working here, since they weren't totally spread across x-amount of other projects. Eric Iverson was the lead shaper, and we also had Angela Moser and Clyde Johnson. All-stars. Eric is leading at Sedge Valley (a new course that opens next month at Sand Valley in Wisconsin) and Childers Hall in Texas. Angela led on No. 10 at Pinehurst, which just opened, and Clyde is running the building of the Old Petty course at Cabot Highlands. To have all three working on the same project was very lucky. You’ll probably never get all three of them together again.

Hole No. 9, Rosapenna Golf Resort's St. Patrick’s Links, County Donegal, Ireland.

TFC: Have there been any changes on the course?
FC: Nothing's happened since the opening. We might make the odd tee box a little bit bigger here or there. We couldn't be happier with the way it's turned out, the feel and the ruggedness of it, the blow out bunkering, and everywhere through the green ties in then with all the waste areas. And there’s so much width, contours, and playable turf.

TFC: Where do all the golfers coming here stay?
FC: We have a 70-bedroom hotel on-site, and we're way, way past the point of where everybody playing golf stays there. And there’s so many Americans that prefer single rooms, too. There's two smaller hotels with a total of 70 rooms in the village of Downings, and then there's another hotel in nearby Carrickart that's just been renovated. So you’ve nearly 180, maybe close to 200, hotel bedrooms. Then there's two self-catering villages, like proper self-catering, plus X amount of Airbnbs. And that's just in the local area. Some people will stay in Letterkenny, which is 30 minutes south of here, and you have four or five quite large hotels there. It all depends on what people want.

TFC: How has the success of St. Patrick’s impacted golf in this region of Ireland?
FC: It’s lifted the entire northwest, from Enniscrone to Ballyliffin. It’s that massive draw that Donegal never had before. You know Rosapenna was a great brand and facility on its own with the Old Tom Morris and Sandy Hills courses. And so was the likes of Ballyliffin, and places like Narin & Portnoo. But you just needed that real superstar attraction.