The pretty fishing village of Downings lies on the edge of Sheep Haven Bay in the north of County Donegal. Donegal is rapidly becoming one of Ireland's best golfing destinations and the secluded Rosapenna is where the old meets the new.
Golf at Rosapenna dates back to 1891, when Old Tom Morris set out the original holes on the Old Tom Morris course; running round the hotel, up onto the hill between the hotel and Mulroy Bay, then back into the valley that lies between the dunes and the beach. Harry Vardon upgraded this layout in 1906, then James Braid is said to have made design suggestions on his visits before Harry Colt created five new holes between 1911 and 1916.
After Frank and Hilary Casey purchased the property in the early 1980s, they called in Eddie Hackett to revitalize the golfing set-up at the hotel and he designed eight extra holes in the dunes to replace those running round the hill. Pat Ruddy then takes up the story in his book Beyond His Lordship’s Wildest Dream: Rosapenna:
“Eddie was inevitably slowing down in the few years before his death in 1996 and his planned new holes were just edging into play when I was invited to visit and everything changed. The Sandy Hills links was conceived and it became clear to me that nine lovely old-fashioned links holes could be fitted into the low dunes between it and the road to make the Old Tom Links play on sand all the way. All but snatches of Eddie’s work was abandoned. Instead, there would be twenty-seven new holes!”
Sandy Hills quietly opened for play in June 2003 and slowly, but surely, the golfing world began to recognise that this course is special. Old Tom chose to route the Old course alongside the dunes, but Pat Ruddy had different ideas – he decided to carve straight through them and this is presumably how the name Sandy Hills came into being. Right from the off, you are in a lunar landscape, among gigantic dunes. Going over and through the dunes provides a platform to drink in the stunning views across the Old course to Sheep Haven Bay beyond.
Measuring 7,183 yards from the back tees and with the par set at 72, Sandy Hills will test the very best. Each and every hole has precise definition with the hummocking fairways framed by the dunes, so the immense challenge is always clearly visible from the tees. Whatever you do, don't stray too far offline, otherwise you'll be lucky to find your ball in the dunes. And make sure that your approach shots are accurate too, because the greens are invariably cut into the dunes or sited on elevated plateaux.
Rosapenna was worthy of a visit just to play the Old course, but Pat Ruddy has improved on that too, by remodelling the back nine. They’ve called the new-look course the ‘Old Tom Morris Links’ after its eminent original designer and it opened for play in September 2009. But it's the Sandy Hills course that everyone is talking about and there's only one way to find out how good it really is.
American architect Beau Welling – who renovated the Quinta do Lago (North) course to great critical acclaim in 2014 – has recently been involved in “softening” the Sandy Hills course a little bit. The first hole is now a sensible par five (instead of a murderous long par four opener) with a penal bunker removed from the front of the green. Similar bunker removals have also taken place on holes 4, 9 and 13, allowing ground game approach shots to reach the green.
New fairway bunkers have been installed at holes 1, 5 and 8 whilst, on the back nine, the right doglegged par five 13th has had a new green installed, along with three new bunkers down the left side of the fairway. Completing the renovation, the reshaped home green is now angled at 45 degrees to the line of play, with shaggy mounds installed at the back to shield the 18th green from the car park.
The severity of the green contours on holes 10, 12 and 16 still give some cause for concern so it appears that they’re next in line for some remedial work in the near future. It’s always good to see new golf courses evolve in their early years as owners react to constructive criticism and Sandy Hills is certainly no exception to that process.
Donegal, Rosepanna and Royal Portrush. What a trip. I had heard wonderful things about Donegal and the golf at Rosepenna for many years. It had reached an almost mythical status amongst well travelled golfers who would almost wink at you when talking about the place and whisper about this well kept golfing secret. "If you know, you know". Well although it is often the case that you should never meet your heroes because they always disappoint (Jack Nicklaus!), this trip certainly did not disappoint. It was brilliant and the fact that we were all debating whether St Pats was the 3rd or 4th best track we played is testament to how brilliant the other courses were. Personally, I think St Pats will become fabulous - a bit of tweaking with the greens and the run offs and more money spent on the infrastructure and clubhouse, but in a couple of years it will have bedded down and will be a true classic.
As for the other tracks - they were all individually brilliant. Ballyliffen the best manicured course and fastest greens I have played on all year, Old Tom was like two different 9 hole courses but both beautiful. The back 9 down the beach I loved. Sandy Hills was marginally disappointing in terms of conditioning and some strange blind tee shots to narrow landing areas. Typical Pat Ruddy design with his use of routing through the dunes, but again I think we were all a bit harsh in our criticism but I think this was a reflection of how good the other courses were. I just hope the Casey family do not run out of money over the next few years and can continue to invest in the set up. It is clear that the pandemic has hurt them financially. They need the Americans back asap.
Finally RPGC. Wow - it is an absolute classic and if pushed I would have it as my favourite Open course. I have played it 5 times now and the new holes have bedded in so well and really added to the routing and given a better finish. I love it and could easily play there every day if I had to.
In 2003 The Sandy Hills Links opened as the second course at Rosapenna. The course had been designed by Pat Ruddy, and while acknowledged as a very good course, the knock was that the course was just too tight. American architect Beau Welling has in recent years been employed to widen the playing areas, and generally improve the course, and the results of his work have been well received.
A recent acquisition has been the St Patricks Links GC, and Tom Doak is again involved giving Rosapenna the chance to become a very special golfing destination, indeed.
While The Old Tom Course was routed through lower lying linksland, The Sandy Hills Links takes advantage of some sizeable dunes, and unlike many of the better known links courses in the UK, all eighteen holes are routed through these impressive sandhills.
But while the terrain is absolutely world class, and perfect for a top quality links course, Sandy Hills does not quite hit the mark. But there are no poor holes, and the course is consistently good. It is well maintained, and a pleasure to walk.
However it does lack that ‘spark’ of creativity that the great courses show. The holes have a sameness, and lack sufficient definition to draw the eye. Don’t get me wrong, this is a quality links course that is fun to play and a good test of golf. I just feel it could be better with a knowledgeable creative architect having input, adding bunkering with a little more flair, and adding some variation to the green sites. At the moment many of the greens are elevated with little or no bunkering, and sharp drop offs at the front as the main protection. Perhaps Beau Welling has this all in hand as the playing areas seem to be quite reasonable now, and some new bunkering on hole 13 was a great improvement. We will have to wait and see!
Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort is an impressive facility and has the potential to be a truly world class resort. But in my view it needs one stand out course, so hopefully Sandy Hills can gradually be tweaked to the required standard, or the adjacent St Patrick Links can fill the void. It’s a good golf destination now. It could be a great one!
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
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.
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.
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.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Rosapenna is the real deal, proper linksland. You get sight of this on the drive in as huge rolling dunes catch your eye. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the most impressive duneland I’ve ever seen around a golf venue.
I’d highly recommend starting your Rosapenna experience on the Old Tom Morris Links first which is well worth playing on its own merits, and it’s on the back nine of the Old Tom Morris Links where you’ll catch your first glimpse of the massive dunes donned with orange flags. That my friends is Sandy Hills, and she’s a beauty.
In truth, I first visited Rosapenna six years ago and played Sandy Hills in a three-club wind. All I can say is that I’ve never been so badly beaten up by a golf course. The bones of a wonderful course were there but it was just far too tough to be enjoyable and the condition of the course, still being fairly new, also needed improving. I made my first return to Rosapenna this month and I’m so happy that I did as the course has improved immeasurably. The greens ran perfectly smooth, maybe the best links greens that I’ve played. The turf conditions are now perfect with that springy links feedback pronounced on every iron shot and the fairways are now much wider and fairer. The blind shots are still there but bunkers have been removed from positions where they didn’t really belong. The green surrounds are closely mown, so whilst many greens are elevated, I found the ground game a realistic option.
What remains from when I first played the course is the sheer beauty of this place. Donegal’s a delightfully scenic county with rugged hills set alongside perfect sandy beaches meaning that the views from this elevated property through the first six holes are spectacular, culminating in the dramatic “up and over” 6th with its green perched in front of the backdrop of the sea. The rest of the course is very much submerged within the dunes such that each hole plays in isolation. Those dunes are covered with long and wispy marram grass meaning each hole is an absolute picture from the tee.
Being set amongst these gigantic mountains of sand, severe drop offs are inevitable. A prime example is the par five 8th where a ball played to the left of the green will just get ejected, so whilst the course is much fairer than it was, accuracy still plays a key part in the course management strategy.
From the first hole with its green located in a trough created by flanking dunes, through to the 18th that’s routed through a valley, there are few places more dramatic. Rosapenna proves to be one of the most spectacular places that I’ve played golf and I hope to see the course rise higher in the rankings as its more mature, fairer self starts to get more recognition. Given time, I firmly believe that Sandy Hills could be making its way into the World Top 100 so get there first before the prices start to be more reflective of a course of this stature.
Sandy Hills was the standout highlight for me on a recent trip to the North. For too long, I had been hearing stories comparing Rosapenna and Ballyliffin, but having experienced them all – in my humble opinion – the Sandy Hills course is miles ahead of Ballyliffin in terms of quality, topography and ranking.
It’s a non-stop thrilling experience playing through the dunes, with no shortage of difficulty added by blind tee shots and approach shots. Par is a hard earned rewarding score for each hole. Mr. Ruddy never wants to make anything too easy in life. It’s a championship test like no other in the northwest, and in firm and fast conditions, this Donegal jewel will knock your socks off. The jaw-dropping surrounding scenery will take your breath away as will the routing that Mr. Ruddy discovered in this idyllic setting.
The opening 6 holes are outstanding with a healthy mix of long and short holes, but each just fits the land perfectly as you climb up and down the dunes. The quality continues the entire way through the back nine and I walked off the course wondering how on earth this course doesn’t get more awards. Sandy Hills belongs comfortably inside the Top 10 in the Republic of Ireland, unlike other big names in Donegal.
On a beautiful day, it’s one of those courses that you wish never came to an end. Add in the Old Tom Morris course as a perfect complement to the might of the Sandy Hills championship layout, and you’ll experience a glorious piece of the Emerald Isle.
The Rosapenna resort is the best golf destination in the entire country. With the addition of St. Patrick’s, Rosapenna has firmly blown the competition out of the water. In terms of quantity and quality, there are more “great” courses concentrated in the northwest compared to any other area of Ireland. In 2003 when Sandy Hills opened, not only was it a massive testament to Frank Casey Sr and Pat Ruddy, but it broke ground on new course development in a region hungry for golf. Furthermore, it gave visiting golfers to Ireland a fresh option as itineraries haven’t really changed over the past 40 years. A return visit has confirmed that Sandy Hills is one of my favourite courses in Ireland - it's just brilliant.
Played today, overcast then glorious sunshine, wind manageable up to 3 clubs. Loved Sandy Hills, a very tough course but a great experience. We didn't see anyone else or on the course, strange given the very long overdue sunny weather we are mercifully enjoying in this lovely corner of Ireland. In many ways the course reminded me of the sainted Castle Stuart if a bit harder - very fair, exciting, scenic, great sense of isolation on each hole, views down to the water over other golf holes, lots of skylarks and the round just flew by leaving one wanting to start again. As noted, it's a tough course and if I could make one suggestion it would be to soften some of the runoffs on the frequent elevated greens. A slightly off approach races off to a collecting gully which is typically heavily divoted. Hypothetically this might lead a player just off the right of the 17th in 2 to thin a lob wedge through the green into the marram and lose the match. Hypothetically. Also, the raised greens and chasms make ground shots sadly rare, typically it's all carry, tough in the wind. That said, Sandy Hills is brilliant fun and achieves what Trump Aberdeen doesn't in a similar setting by creating a spectacular but charming place to play golf. Would love to return, clearly the best course we've played so far in the area.
Coming back to Rosapenna, I noticed how much more I appreciated Sandy Hills. The course felt a lot friendlier than I remembered it to be.
This hunch was quickly confirmed by the pro shop: there has been a lot of tweaking of mowing lines and other design details in the last ten years to make the course less penal and more playable. Having said that, Sandy Hills is still a difficult course, especially if the wind is up or driving is off. The two unfortunately tend to be related for most golfers. In any case, it is not a track I would recommend to a high-handicapper.
However, I would advise anyone with the right game to give it a rematch sooner than I did (first visit 2008, second late August this year) because like any other Pat Ruddy design it is a lot less exhausting mentally if you played it recently and can sort out the real trouble from the imagined.
Very seldom busy, which means you will likely play at your own pace, which could be fast or excruciatingly slow, depending on how many balls you have to search for.
I can only confirm that the hype around this course is utterly justified. Conditions were really tough with 5 Bft. and some showers every now and then. This really hadn't been necessary for Sandy Hills to send me home with not much left of my pride. It's a cracking course but man is it difficult. I found the landing areas to be increasingly small for 3 woods and drivers, where an iron off the tee would often result in a long iron into the prevailing wind to a raised green between dunes. A lot of shots therefore felt awkward. Visually, Sandy Hills is as good as it gets. Few holes reveal sights of the next one, and not a single hole is alike. For my liking though, there are just a few too many blind shots to be played but that could be my grudge speaking for all the brand new balls I sprayed around the course. Sandy Hills is beyond memorable and really a fantastic course. Don't bring your pencil however, just enjoy the beating and pure linksgolf. MO
I always include Rosapenna on my Ireland golf trips. Sandy Hills is a fine test of golf with no weak holes . It is more playable (easier) now that a ground game game can be used at many holes that were previously protected by penal pot bunkers. Sandy Hills should not take a backseat to any course in Ireland
The Morris-Ruddy second course vividly shows the difference in course architecture available when the nines were built. The OTM nine is on relatively flat rolling links land adjacent to the sea but the Ruddy nine takes you into the dunes, much like the Sandy Hills course
The Casey's provide a great golf experience with the world class golf but the hotel, spa and dining are equally impressive
Portsalon is a short drive away and only adds to the reasons to visit Rosapenna
If the spectacular dunes of St. Patricks Links are ever redeveloped into another world class course, Rosapenna will become the premier golfing destination in Ireland
Mr Ruddy has built a magnificent golf course here. Yes the dunescape provides topographic majesty but this adds pressure to deliver. There are architects that would not optimise the canvass provided. Mr R has nailed it. Rosapenna offers a world class 36 holes of golf. Whilst OTM is a more classical links, shy, subdued and tranquil, Sandy Hills is a shock to the senses, a course that hits you over the head but you smile as you realize you've been hit by a rubber chicken ! What I am saying is that the contrast between the 2 courses makes the overall experience more intense. I love the 2 courses at Ballyliffen, but Rosapenna offers more contrast between the 2 courses. In terms of Sandy Hills, the holes are seriously good and it is difficult to recall any weak holes. Standout holes are 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 17, 18.