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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.
The quartet of par fours from holes 3 to 6 are very strong, ending with a semi blind approach to a green sitting at the foot of an enormous sand hill but my favourite hole was the par three 7th which calls for a heroic shot from the side of one dune to another (albeit to a temporary green when I played). The Valley holes were far better than I remembered from before (though I was probably mulling over my mauling on the course next door when I played it) and my playing partner expressed his surprise at the quality of the half dozen holes between 12 and 17. The home hole is a bit of an anti climax, a straightforward par five played directly towards the clubhouse, but with the statue of Old Tom looking down from the grass bank in front of the locker rooms, it’s a truly fitting way to conclude a round on such an old, historic links that has just had new life breathed into it. Jim McCann