The Next Great Irish Links

In the way that legendary breaks like “Jaws,” off the north coast of Maui, or “Mavericks,” near San Francisco, are magnets for big-wave surfers, it’s a certain kind of golfer who is attracted to big-dune links courses. They’re hardy and fun-loving, more accepting of quirky design, and, perhaps, a bit more interested in pulling off heroic shots than strictly adhering to a card-and-pencil mentality.

Scotland has its share of big-dune designs—Donald Trump’s new layout in Aberdeen is just the most recent—but the west coast of Ireland is its equal. There’s Lahinch, of course, and bruising Enniscrone, and Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s intense Cashen Course at Ballybunion. But the Big Daddy of them all is Carne, which this past summer opened a new nine that should quickly gain renown as one of the best big-dune circuits in the country.

Carne 6th

Carne? Who or what is a Carne? There are a couple of reasons for the obscurity. First, it’s a relatively new facility: The original 18 opened in 1995, the final design by the popular Irish architect Eddie Hackett. Second, and more significantly, is the location. Carne is way out there on the coast of County Mayo, in the “Gaeltacht” where Irish is or was the predominant language (the club’s official name is “Gailf Chursa Chairn”). It’s a beautiful place that, historically, people have been hell-bent on leaving. A major center of the potato famine, Mayo’s population decreased by nearly one-third in a single decade (1841–1851), and the long-term legacy of mass emigration remains a regional challenge to this day.

The modern Irish economy is driven by tourism, of course, and for 25 years Mayo authorities and Carne’s tireless director, Eamon Mangan, have dreamed of securing the club a place on
the traveling golfer’s northwest circuit. Plans to develop a third nine date back more than a decade, but it was in 2010 that the project got going when the club hired a young Scottish architect named Ally McIntosh.

McIntosh’s first objective was to tighten up the routing. “When you’re dealing with land like this, you want to do as little as possible,” he says. “There’s drama galore, but you have to make the course walkable.” This was no easy task: Not only did the architect have to contend with what existed of the prior work, but the best hole corridors were nested inside Hackett’s original 18. Once the routing was resolved, McIntosh set to work on providing ample width (another challenge, due to the severity of the dune slopes) and reducing the number of blind shots. With a small excavator as the primary earthmover, however, shuffling dirt was a long and difficult process. But in golf architecture, it’s not uncommon to see virtue borne of necessity, so working within a set of strict parameters, McIntosh, Mangan, and their team were forced to make smart choices in order to find the best, most natural holes.

It’s safe to say they succeeded, as the new nine (known as the Kilmore) presents an array of memorable holes within the grand and chaotic dunes. Among them is the 3rd, an adventuresome downhill two-shotter. Brave drives down the right are rewarded with a big forward kick, while bailouts to the expansive left side of the fairway will face a more complicated approach—from this angle, the shoulder of a massive dune holds the green in a defensive embrace. The snaking par-five 5th probably will be the most controversial addition as the second shot must play around or vault blindly over a high ridge. Another test of long iron or fairway wood play will be found at the 7th, a par three of some 230 yards.

Rosapenna 14th

My favorite, though, is the mid-length par-four 8th, where the green complex seems to rise from the valley floor like a primitive dagger. With its upper-right shelf ringed by confounding slopes, the action doesn’t stop once on the green. Indeed, some early observers believe the Kilmore greens stray too far toward the wild side, but the contours are nothing that golfers familiar with bold putting surfaces—from C.B. Macdonald’s to Tom Doak’s—would find beyond the pale.

As the Kilmore beds down into its natural surroundings, it remains to be seen how the club will deploy the new nine. A composite routing in which McIntosh’s holes are folded into Hackett’s back nine is one compelling possibility, as this combination would produce one of the most thrilling big-dune experiences in the game. However, Hackett’s front side, while set in more modest terrain (relatively speaking—it’s still Carne!), might out-punch the original back nine purely on the merits of their respective holes. The ideal solution, of course, is simply to play all 27.

A few hours’ drive from Carne on the wild and rocky northern coast of Donegal is Rosapenna, a four-star resort with a long golf tradition and grand plans for the future. The resort has been family-owned and operated since 1981—when Frank Casey purchased the 66-bedroom hotel and the 18 holes at its doorstep—but the game has been played here since the 1890s, when Old Tom Morris stopped by to design a nine-hole loop on an occasionally flattish but altogether pleasant strip of land paralleling the beach. In subsequent decades, Harry Vardon and H.S. Colt made their marks on this Valley nine, which remains the finest collection of holes on the property.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Casey presided over an expansion of Rosapenna’s golf offerings, hiring the colorful journalist-turned-architect Pat Ruddy to create 27 more holes: the Sandy Hills links, which opened in 2003 and is Rosapenna’s challenging big-dune layout, and the Strand nine. The Strand has since been paired with the ancient Valley holes to form the Old Tom Morris links.

The big news coming from Rosapenna is that even more golf is on the way. As Casey prepares for his retirement, he is readying his sons—30-year-old Frank Jr., who is the director of golf, and John, 26—to take over the family business. Fortunately for golf travelers, both lads are knowledgeable and skilled players who love the game. In November of 2012, the family laid the foundation for the next generation’s legacy, acquiring some 370 acres of prime duneland adjacent to their property. With the purchase of this real estate, Rosapenna is poised to become one of the biggest golf resorts in the European Union in total number of holes. And if the land is developed wisely, it may also become the home of the next great Irish links.

Rosapenna Cottage

Despite having enough land for 36 holes, Casey Jr. thinks it more likely they’ll build 18 or 27 instead. With the stakes set, the million-dollar question becomes: Who will get the job? Representatives of firms ranging from Arnold Palmer Design to European Golf Design have visited the site and provided concepts. The punters and tea-leaf readers would probably set Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design as the current front-runner.

Rosapenna, with its comfortable lodging and beachfront setting, is already a solid fixture on the northwest route. But golfers on multi-course Irish adventures tend to move along quickly, either south toward Sligo or east toward Northern Ireland. One goal of the new links is to slow travelers down. “We’d love for people to come and stay for three or four nights instead of one or two,” Casey Jr. says. Given the tremendous charm and natural beauty of the region, we won’t complain when Rosapenna provides another good reason to take a little extra time in Donegal.