Golf Course Review of Rosapenna (Sandyhills & Old Tom Morris)
Rosapenna Golf Course
Reviewed by Ed Battye -
Quick Summary: Destination golf
Our 5 Star Rating: 4.6 (Sandyhills), 4.2 (Old Tom Morris)
Located on the edge of the picturesque Sheephaven Bay in County Donegal the Rosapenna Resort is a fascinating golf facility tucked away in a corner on the North-West coast of Ireland.
The complex has seen a number of alterations over the years, which admittedly does create a bit of convolution at times, and further change is planned for the future.
Firstly, the hotel is excellent with all the facilities you would expect from an upmarket, luxury resort with particular mention going to the spacious rooms. It is located a very short drive from the golf pavilion and clubhouse so makes a great base for a stay here. I would personally look no further.
There are currently two full 18 hole links at Rosapenna; the “Old Tom Morris” layout and the “Sandyhills” course. There is also the “Coastguard” nine-holer across the road which used to be part of the Old Tom Morris layout before a new “Strand” nine was created (albeit away from the Strand) which is now the front nine of OTM. The back nine of OTM is called the “Valley” links which is not really in a valley and IS located adjacent to the stunning Strand beach! To complicate matters further part of original OTM course (close to where the hotel is now situated on the headland) was left to grass in order to accommodate new buildings and housing. And if all that hasn’t frazzled your brain the resort now own what used to be the two abandoned courses at St. Patrick’s, located at the far end of the property, which is presently being converted into one new links course under the watch of Tom Doak!!
In short though, all you really need to know is that there is enough good golf at Rosapenna to warrant a visit! And in a few years, if it isn’t already, then Rosapenna could be a must visit destination with enough golf to keep you occupied for a week.
The Sandyhills course, largely undisputed as the best on the estate and often ranked within the top links of Great Britain & Ireland, is a relentless modern golfing experience of the big dune type.
Created by Pat Ruddy and opened for play in 2003 the 18 holes are effectively laid out on one mammoth dune ridge way up in the clouds but across this ridge there are some huge undulations and dunes within their own right.
Golf courses are often described as a roller-coaster ride and Sandyhills is the epitome of this. Drives from elevated tees to plunging fairways and then back up to raised greens with killer drop-offs and deep bunkers are the norm. We have blind, or at least partially sighted, drives at a number of holes and the fairways, not particularly generous, twist, weave and turn through the sandhills. Very rarely do you have a boring golf shot at Rosapenna. In a wind the course is difficult and you will need to try and play shots that you never thought you had in your locker.
The first hole is a fine introduction to the round and lets you know exactly what you will be in store for over the next few hours. This is quickly reinforced at the second where a large dip defends the green and if you were still in any doubt about the breathtaking and demanding golf required the knob-to-knob third is the final nail in the coffin.
Without giving a blow-by-blow description of each hole I will just say that the drama never ends. Be it the cascading fairway at the sixth, the tantalisingly difficult fall-away green at the downhill 7th or the arguably unfair crater that fronts the 12th you will not leave Sandyhills feeling you weren’t engaged, entertained and perhaps even mauled by the course.
I love the golf that Sandyhills produces. It is not dissimilar to that at Carne or Enniscrone where it just never lets up. And ironically that would be my only criticism – is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Can it be too dramatic to be truly great. The more golf I play the more I think I have decided in my own mind that the answer is yes but equally I don’t have a problem indulging myself now and again.
The Old Tom Morris course, with origins going back to 1893, is a mixed bag with two disjointed nines where you must walk through the car park at the halfway stage (pet hate alert). It is very much is a case of where modern and tradition meet.
How much of the golf course Old Tom originally staked out is not really clear but it is probably minimal at best. The newer holes (1 to 9) which opened in 2009 are quite similar to the Sandyhills course although not as dramatic nor as penal – this can be viewed as a good thing, especially if you are playing both courses in the same day. However, there is still plenty of exhilarating golf to be had where we must drive through funnels, hit over chasms and use the dune slopes to work our ball onto the greens.
Meanwhile, the back-nine (predominantly attributed to Harry Colt although Harry Vardon and James Braid also had involvement) is a much more classic and subtler affair where the ground game dominates. The inward half is very much at ease with itself and is my preferred style of golf and in the case of holes 12, 13 and 14 my perfect type if links golf! In fact these three holes are right out of the very top drawer; a central bunker in the middle of the undulating 12th fairway dictates the strategy whilst at the risk-reward next the wickedly sloping green can easily turn a good birdie chance into a bogey or worse. And then at the very far end of the links we have a peach of a short hole played to a wonderful green set on a plateau across a valley.
The run for home is also very good on this par 71 course which can play up to 6,867 yards.
I get the feeling that Rosapenna is still a bit of a work in progress – not that the courses feel unfinished by any stretch of the imagination – just that it will be fine tuned over the coming years to potentially create one of the best golfing destination venues in the British Isles.