BRIAN KEOGH / IRISH GOLF DESK
Ireland’s sunny southeast might be great for your holidays, but it could soon become one of the meccas of Irish golf thanks to the construction of Curracloe Links at the new Ravenport Resort.
Dana Fry and Jason Straka of Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design are one of golf’s most lauded architecture firms with Erin Hills in Wisconsin, the 2017 US Open venue where Brooks Koepka won the first of his five major titles, arguably their best-known creation.
Putting Wexford on the world golfing map is now a passion for the Wexford-based Neville Hotels Group, which is investing €20 million in the new Ravenport Resort, a deluxe hotel, golf course and holiday lodge resort just a few hundred metres from the white sands of Curracloe Beach where Steven Spielberg famously filmed the D-Day landing scenes for the cinematic blockbuster, ‘Saving Private Ryan’.
It’s a privileged location, and while Wexford boasts some great golf at Rosslare and Bunclody, the southeast is generally overlooked by the thousands of overseas golfers who flock here to play the great links of the southwest, the northwest, the north and the east coast.
“You can do a routing around Ireland as an American tourist and you literally drive by the southeast.,” says John Clarkin of Turfgrass, who will be working with Fry/Straka on creating a special new Irish golfing destination.
“Curracloe Links will put southeast golf on the map of Ireland around the world. This is going to be like nothing we have seen in Ireland before. The word is unique.”
Work on the new course, billed as a links-style course that could compare with exciting two new American venues such as Friar’s Head in New York and Tobacco Road in North Carolina, is set to begin this spring with the opening scheduled for 2026.
It’s a passion project for the Neville brothers Seamus and Brendan, who will employ up to 800 people across all their properties when the new four-star hotel at the Ravenport Resort opens at Curracloe on 16 February.
Gaelic football and hurling always took pride of place in the Neville household, but since adding the five-star Druids Glen Resort to their portfolio five years ago, brilliantly renovated in a €10 million project that was completed last year, the family now has a passion for golf and a desire to bring golfers to Wexford.
“We’re getting to grips with it,” jokes company director Therese Kelly (née Neville), daughter of managing Director Seamus Neville, who has been dreaming of creating something special at Curracloe since the turn of the millennium.
“Wexford is well served with some lovely hotels, but Curracloe specifically is probably in need of something like this.
“Planning permission first went in nearly 25 years ago, so it’s been a work in progress for my father in particular for the last 20-odd years. People in Wexford are looking forward to something new coming and we think it will be well received.”
The name Ravenport is a nod to the Raven Nature Reserve, a 600-acre forest and wildlife sanctuary next to Curracloe Beach, and the nearby Rosslare Europort, and the golf project promises to be one of the most exciting seen in Irish golf in years.
“When you consider there was no real golf experience in the group prior to them taking over Druids Glen, the level of investment and the calibre of people that have been involved in these projects is second to none,” says Marcus Doyle, Director of Golf at Druids Glen, which is one of five hotel properties in the Neville Group alongside the Royal Marine in Dun Laoghaire, the River Court in Kilkenny and the Tower Hotel & Leisure Centre in Waterford.
“Druids Glen has started to really thrive now, and to move forward and to work with more incredibly high calibre people in Dana Frey and Jason Straka from Frey/Straka at Ravenport, the clear mission statement is that they are going to bring something to Ireland we have never seen before.
“This golf course will be one of the most unique links golf courses in Europe, not just in Ireland. Having Erin Hills and other top-class venues throughout North America already on their CV and bringing something to Ireland, particularly Wexford, is just incredible.”
Straka, who is one of the youngest members ever elected to the Board of Governors of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), could not be more excited about the project, which will have a links feel thanks to the unique sandy terrain of a site that runs right down to the beach.
“When you go out on the site, it’s within view of the dunes and the sea, so it certainly isn’t heathland, and it’s not a parkland setting,” he says. “The nice thing that John, Dana and I found out is that it’s got considerable amounts of native sand once you uncover what amounted to grazing pasture.
“The intent is to uncover and utilise that sand to our advantage. We’re striving to create something that would be a cross between Friar’s Head and Tobacco Road in the US.
“It’s not intended to be any sort of replication of a European Club, Portmarnock, or Royal Portrush. It’s a different type of site than that. But it will have that links element.
“It will be all fescue with rough-hewn, not revetted bunkers. So that’ll be a bit different from what people are perhaps used to seeing. It will be about uncovering that sand and giving it that dunes look.”
Straka describes the site as “ancient links land” with elevation changes that remind him of Royal County Down and Clarkin is hugely excited.
“I actually visited the site in 1999 with Seamus (Neville), so 25 years ago now, and that links idea came to my head straight away just because we were walking literally on an abundance of sand,” Clarkin recalls.
“We’ve gone down seven, eight metres, and it’s just pure sand, similar to Friar’s Head and Tobacco Road. It’s not quite Tralee or something else. It’s unique, with larger waste sand areas than you would find on a traditional links. And that’s the beauty of this – blown-out bunkers that get back to the real tradition and away from the revetted side of it.
“People say the word links comes from the land that links the arable land and the sea and this is as close as you can get to it. With the sand, design, and grass types, this will have a links feel.”
Straka compares the site to Royal Dornoch in Scotland, but he also compares it to two of US golf’s most exciting new projects so they can capture the imagination of the North American market.
A par-70 measuring 6,804 yards from the tips, the equivalent of a par-72 of 7,200 yards, it’s not designed to be a championship course but a fun golfing experience for the American visitor looking for a unique experience in an Irish setting.
“People struggle to understand what it might look like, but if you say, think of Friar’s Head and think of elements of Tobacco Road, people going to go, ‘Oh, I got it. Well, playing those courses set in Ireland would be pretty cool.’
“It will be designed to be a fun golf course, which means losing few golf balls. Certainly, the land will allow us to create a lot of firm, fast bump-and-run conditions. What’s so cool about this site is you’ve got downhill, uphill and sidehill lies, similar to that kettle terrain at Erin Hills.
“The north side of the property has just the quintessential Irish sheep farm elements with their stone walls, so you are totally immersed in what somebody thinks of as traditional Irish countryside, just that sense of place. You can’t replicate that in other locations, no matter how hard you try.
“The Neville Group wants to build a golf course and a facility that we can all be extraordinarily proud of. They want to bring in golfers who traditionally may not have come to the sunny southeast.
“The family comes from County Wexford, so this is their home and they want to give back and put their community on the map in terms of golf. It’s definitely not intended to be a big tournament course.”
Clarkin is the expert in agronomy and with blown-out sand features combined with fescue, gorse, heather and broom, it will have a unique, natural look.
“The beauty is that we don’t need to import materials to build a golf course,” he says. “The two main quarries for sand for golf courses around Ireland are just four or five kilometres away. So we’re literally sitting on a quarry of sand ourselves, and we can do everything in-house. From a sustainability point of view, that really works as well.”
Construction will start next month and the Neville family could not be more excited about what lies in store for Ravenport and Wexford, which has so much to offer the tourist in terms of its history given its connection with John F Kennedy and such attractions as The Irish National Heritage Park, Vinegar Hill, Johnston Castle and Gardens, Wexford Wildfowl Reserve and Hook Peninsula.
“We’re very pleased with how Druids Glen has turned out and we are very excited about Ravenport coming on stream as well,” says Therese, who lives in Curracloe.
“I live just beside the site, so I have people coming to my front door wondering when the hotel will open and asking about membership of the golf course. Our family’s from Wexford, so we’re very deeply invested in the area and very much looking forward to it.”