Rosapenna, situated on County Donegal’s Rosguill Peninsula in the extreme northwest of Ireland, was traditionally overlooked when a roll call of Ireland’s great golf locales was taken. The links laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1891 was pleasant enough, but hardly worth a go-at-all-costs pilgrimage, especially considering its remote location.
Now, however, the time has come to rethink Rosapenna.
Pat Ruddy, Ireland’s leading contemporary golf architect, has unveiled a soaring new links through the dunes that line this majestic stretch of Atlantic coastline. Its debut follows the recent resurrection and expansion of the Rosapenna Hotel. And suddenly the journey up the narrow, winding road toward the outer reaches of Donegal is one that richly rewards the savvy golfer.
Golf was introduced at Rosapenna in 1891 by Robert Bermingham Clements, the Fourth Earl of Leitrim, who invited Old Tom to lay out a pleasurable links in the valley between the sandy beach, with its shallow, streaming whitecaps just beyond, and the high dune ridge on the inland side. The course had to be placed in these lowlands because Morris lacked the earthmoving technology necessary to tackle higher ground.
By the turn of the century Rosapenna was attracting a large contingent of high-society golfers from England and Scotland. But its grandeur began to fade with the advent of air travel and the building of newer resorts. In 1962 the picturesque wood-frame hotel, with its gabled wings flanking the main section and the balustraded veranda, burned to the ground.
In 1980 Frank Casey, whose father was the head waiter and manager of the restaurant at the old hotel, acquired the 800-acre property, which included the golf course and a block of hotel rooms that had been built in 1964.
Casey contacted Ruddy in 1994 about building a course here, and work began in earnest in 1996. The links that resulted is appropriately dubbed Sandy Hills, which is in many ways the ideal of a modern links. Intended for the serious golfer, its narrow fairways appear constricting from the tee, but the landing areas sculpted from the dunes are deceptively wide.
Above all, the appeal of Sandy Hills lies in its beautifully balanced routing through the high dunes cloaked in marram grass. These sandhills bear a striking resemblance to the ones near the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland that form the spine of Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock. Many of the holes feature elevated tees and greens, with drives into natural bowls on the dune floor. Most of the holes run north and south along the dune ridges, parallel to the front nine of the Old Tom course below, and above Tramore, the large beach along Sheephaven Bay that caught the Scotsman’s attention so long ago.
There are no weak holes, but the best come at the stretch of Nos. 6–13, which romp across the interior dunes. No. 6 is at the far southern end of the course, with the drive over a crest that reveals a picture-postcard view of the sickle of beach and bay with Muckish Mountain straight ahead. No. 7 is a downhill par 3 to a sliver of green peeking from the dunes, and the 8th leads inland, tumbling downhill and then rising toward the backdrop of Carrigart and the Lough Salt Mountains in the distance.
The 10th heads back toward the sea through a secret valley in the dunes, with the raised green framed by the gray peak of Muckish. No. 12 continues in the same direction, coursing upward through the dunes, and the 13th, having reached the higher ground, is a seamless band of smoother fairway that coils leftward toward Mulroy Bay.
No doubt Old Tom would approve of what has become of this linksland that he so keenly recognized more than a century ago.