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25 miles from Letterkenny on the N56, then R245 and R248
Old Tom Morris, whilst visiting Lord Leitrim on his estate in 1891, is credited with the original design of Rosapenna's Old course. The original 18-hole Old Tom Morris course started on some raised land between the clubhouse and the hotel. Nine holes then ran along the low lying area beside Tramore beach before the remaining fairways ran away from the coastline, across the road, up and around a nearby hill, tumbling down again to the start.
Within a short space of time, Rosapenna was the place to be seen playing, as evidenced by a photo from 1896 of George Duncan, Sandy Herd, Tom Ball and Harry Vardon relaxing on the lawns outside the hotel. Vardon returned a decade later to upgrade the course and James Braid is said to have suggested improvements, though there’s no documentary evidence of this.
In Pat Ruddy’s book Ballyliffin: Golf’s Great Twin Miracles, the author states: “it was not long until Rosapenna was the subject of more far-reaching design changes as the great Harry Colt was called in about 1911 and was actively involved up to about 1916 and his works were so dramatic that they involved the installation of a narrow railway line to import loam and other materials up the Old Tom valley where he is credited with having created holes twelve, thirteen fourteen, fifteen and sixteen per the hole numbers in 2012.”
In June 2005, nine new holes opened for play, laid out by Pat Ruddy from the European Club. These were carved through the low-lying dunes adjacent to the Sandy Hills course and became known as the “Strand Nine”. Reaching for perfection, the club closed the Strand nine at the end of 2006 for extensive greensite restoration and bunker additions. Shaper Eric Iverson from Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design Company undertook this work and, in September of 2009, the nine holes reopened and the order of holes were re-sequenced.
The opening hole and the last eight holes of the original Old Tom Morris course were removed to form a new “Coastguard Nine” and the newly restored “Strand Nine” was introduced to create the front nine, with the original Old Tom “Valley Nine” (holes 2 to 10) re-sequenced as the back nine, which finishes in front of the Rosapenna Pavilion.
In essence, Rosapenna now has a restored Old course where the modern Strand holes complement the original Old Tom Morris Valley holes in a layout that’s a blend of old-fashioned and contemporary, where design from the late 19th century spans more than a hundred years to meet the brave new modern golf world.
One certainly needs a scorecard to figure out all the modifications carried out over the years. Suffice to say, there's plenty of quality golf at the resort and the Old Tom Morris layout -- still commands attention. Although the fingerprints of the original architect have clearly evolved over the course of time.
The first five holes -- part of the Strand Nine -- are simply matter-of-fact holes but when you arrive at the par-4 6th it's like someone flipped the switch and the room goes from darkness to bright light. The 6th is a brilliant hole --mandating keen awareness and carried out via flawless execution. The earlier review by T P Dean is 100% spot on -- not only about the qualities of the 6th but the dynamic par-3 7th that follows.
The final two holes of the inward half are also good -- the 8th a par-5 that yields birdies in a miserly manner and the par-4 9th is played through an eye-catching dune valley.
When you head to play the "Valley Nine" -- it's as if you are playing a different course primarily from a presentation standpoint.
As others have pointed out -- the inward side commences alongside Sheephaven Bay. The terrain is flatter but the juxtaposition of land and water is quite appealing from an aesthetic side of things. The 10th is a difficult long par-4 where the turning point going left must be respected. The equally challenging long par-4 11th also keeps the pressure on players. The par-4 12th that follows is bolstered by a center-placed bunker. Strategic options abound -- but it's crucial to realize one's limitations and play accordingly.
The short par-4 13th provides a bit of a respite and the par-3 14th takes you to the far corner of the property. The return march to the clubhouse is aided by a first-rate par-4 at the 15th. Being in the fairway is mandatory because the approach only becomes more testing. The par-5 16th is a weak three-shot hole but if it were reduced to play as a long par-4 the challenge would clearly intensify. The penultimate hole is a quality par-3 and the long par-5 18th culminates the round.
As has been said by a few others -- the rigorous nature of Sandy Hills may be too much to handle for quite a few golfers. The Old Tom Morris layout is more elastic but do not confuse elasticity as a recipe for sloppy or indifferent play. The stylish differential elements I alluded to between front and back nines is something that can be alleviated. The main anchor holding the experience back is the slow progression of holes at the start of the round.
Ed Battye's comment on the facility being "a work in progress" is ever prescient. The Old Tom Morris 18 could be even more engaging with the inclusion of bunkers at key locations thereby raising the need for more consistent shotmaking. By no means is the layout a "relief" course but bringing together the varying elements could truly add to the golf side of things.
Finally, If and when the plans for golf at the former St. Patrick's takes hold the totality of the golf at Rosapenna will clearly be in the upper echelon in Ireland and potentially provide a "Bandon in Ireland" experience.
We shall see.
M. James Ward
The Old Tom Morris Links is routed though lower lying linksland, and not surprisingly displays some of the characteristics of St Andrews Old Course.
The fairways have serious ‘rumple’, to match the quality of the Old Tom greens.
The front nine of the current course is routed in smaller dunes away from the sea, and this is the nine Pat Ruddy/ Renaissance Design have contributed to.
Slightly more modern looking, this nine should be your starter at Rosapenna!
The back nine is routed along the seafront with a number of holes touching the beach.
It does not have the visual impact of The Old Course at St Andrews as there is no gorse, and the magnificent bunkering from the old course is absent. Nevertheless there are similarities and it is a good links course in a pretty setting.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
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.
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.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
The Old Tom Morris links may be the lower ranked of the two courses, but its popularity provides sufficient evidence that it should not be ignored. I walked eighteen on Sandy Hills and hardly saw a soul whilst the Old Tom Morris course was packed. The Old Tom Morris course is both more forgiving and classic in style than its championship sister course. Playing across two contrasting halves, rather than the nines being positioned side by side, the course is bisected down the middle by the gigantic dunes that Sandy Hills is played across.
The “Strand” front nine is played across smaller, more traditional duneland and starts off with a steady, if unspectacular first few holes but rapidly ramps up in quality at the 6th. This was my pick of the holes across the eighteen, played towards a green swallowed up by a large dune, it’s a hole that would grace most top level courses. The next hole, a par three played over a hollow of sandy wasteland is also first class. The last two holes of this front nine return back towards the clubhouse with the closing hole channelled through a duned valley.
As you then take the walk across to the back nine “Valley” holes, there’s a change of gear. In no way inferior to the front nine, it’s this time played across flatter land against the backdrop of Sheephaven Bay. The first four holes are set parallel to the shoreline that’s blessed with a beautiful sandy beach, whilst another wonderful par three, complete with a tremendous elevated green complex, takes you towards the end of the property. This nine then loops back around and plays in the shadow of those mountainous dunes which border it and closes out in front of a statue of Old Tom who watches over those putts and handshakes on the final green.
For the resorts so called “second course”, I was very much pleasantly surprised with the quality of the course, and in my mind holds its own with others in the region, even if it hadn’t been part of a larger golf complex. That being said, with the right investment, including the development of the St Patricks course by Tom Doak’s Renaissance team (which also has bags of potential), Rosapenna has all of the ingredients to become the go-to golf destination in Ireland.
Played this morning in a 2/3 club wind and under the threat of rain that never truly arrived and we had the course to ourselves. Gentle first hole, followed by slightly prosaic 2&3 but really got going at the terrific 6th, long par 4 with dell green and terrific sand craters to the right that we then played over on the lovely 7 th par 3. The 8 th is a cracking downhill par 5, and the 9th rounds out the front half nicely.... And on to the main course, 10 to 15 are great seaside holes, and flattish holes at the feet of Sandy Hills take us home. The par 5 16&18 are a little plain, but it's nice to finish with some birdie chances. Sitting in the clubhouse enjoying a Guinness and watching the wind blowing the seas of marram grass it's a great place to be !
A truly tremendous course that is beautiful, tough and fair. Terrific par threes. The layout has been hugely altered from the original Tom Morris layout which is a pity but the changes have been made with great skill. Personally I prefer this course to the hideously hard Sandy Hills both visually and from a playability point of view.
One of the best golf venues in Ireland.
This is a difficult review to write: I really enjoyed the variety of the previous edition of the Rosapenna Old Links with the Coastguard holes providing great views and quite modest quality golf and the Valley holes the opposite. It was also a very different experience to Sandy Hills.
However, no one remotely objective can say that the course has not improved a lot with the Strand Nine (currently holes 1-9) and the new tees and driving lines on the Valley Nine (now holes 10-18).
Many reviewers have over the years said that they prefer the Old Links over Sandy Hills and I think I also belong in that category, although the differences between the courses are smaller now.
The recommendation therefore becomes: if you can only play one round at Rosapenna and your handicap is in double figures, play the Old Links.
A final aside: On my two visits to Rosapenna, we have been almost alone on either course, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, this probably means that the two dormant courses at neighbouring St Patrick’s will remain just that for quite some time. Hope to be very wrong sooner rather than later as this is great golfing terrain.
This is the one to play.......play Sandy Hills later.
To start off our trip, we played the Old Tom Morris course and I enjoyed it a lot. The front nine has some cracking holes like 6,7 and 9 but the other holes have a very compact routing which I didn't really like. It gives the course a less serious feel. The back nine is completely different however. The holes close to the sea are very spectacular and wouldn't misfit on any top linkscourse. It has a great mix of holes, including a great reachable risk-reward par 4 13th. the following one shotter is also a worldclass hole with a valley between tee and green. Old Tom Morris is a friendly course that can show its' teeth when you're not paying attention. Play both courses to see how they contrast! but if you're in a hurry, I hold nearby Portsalon higher in esteem.
What a piece of land ! Rosapenna offers a world class 36 holes of golf. Whilst Sandy Hills is the more dramatic in terms of dunescape and routing, OTM is more classical links. In terms of OTM, my view is that the back 9 is prettier and with a slightly better contrast of holes. The standout holes are:- 5, 6, 7, 11, 13, 16, 17, 18 (great finishing hole)