When a facility has a big time challenging course it helps when grouped with other golf options onsite. Why? It gives players an opportunity to stay away from the layout that's unrelenting in its overall demands. In many ways Rosapenna's Sandy Hills is akin to Bethpage State Park's Black Course in being the flagship course among several layouts on property.
Be forewarned: if you can't handle windy days -- often exceeding 25 mph and featuring rough that swallows golf balls faster than "Jaws" ate swimmers -- the simple recourse is -- stay away until one's game is sufficiently up to the challenge. Sandy Hills doesn't sugarcoat things and most certainly -- this is not a hugs and kisses course.
A good bit of the reputation of Sandy Hills is where the course is routed. Unlike the other courses at the facility which work around the wild dunes terrain -- Sandy Hills takes clear aim through some of the most intense links land one can encounter. Pity the player who has little control over one's driver -- you may run out of ammo because wildness becomes an expensive habit for one's golf ball budget.
Let me hasten to add -- the difficulty meter is no less when playing County Down, or Dunluce at Portrush or Muirfield but for whatever reason Sandy Hills gets star billing as being seen as way too tough and beyond playability. I don't view the course that way but the caveat for all players is rather straightforward -- short of those legitimate low single digit handicaps no one should venture beyond the middle tees. Unfortunately, the people who then whine about fairness should simply look in the mirror and ask themselves why they attempted to play a course beyond their capabilities.
The elements are also front and center when playing. As I mentioned earlier -- the daily breezes that blow can be savage like in the manner they can erode a player's confidence level. If your swing is not sound there is little doubt it will quickly unravel in a big time manner. Without beating the main point too many times -- if you can't get off the tee consistently at Sandy Hills the game is over - and the goose that's cooked will be you.
Sandy Hills starts with a par-5 hole that truthfully can be reduced to a lengthy par-4 for the really top tier players. As a par-5 you have an opportunity to get off to a much needed good start. At the long par-4 2nd reality hits you in a big time way. The long par-4 is a demanding hole -- featuring a bottleneck fairway of epic proportions. Being in the fairway is an absolute must as the green is quite finicky on accepting any approach not well-played.
The par-3 3rd is a good change of pace hole -- often subject to major cross winds. Take enough club as being short doesn't yield anything but trouble.
The next three holes are quality par-4's -- each different from the other -- each requiring quality tee shots to get things going in the right direction. At the 4th it pays to stay left as major trouble hangs near the corner of this dog-leg right hole. At the 493-yard 5th you don't see the landing area which only adds doubt to one's backswing when standing at the tee. Once again Ruddy adds a bottleneck fairway so being long is fine provided you keep the ball on the short stuff. The approach must also be hit with a marriage between proper trajectory and accuracy.
When you come to the 6th you come to one of Ireland's grandest holes. You don't realize this when standing on the tee because you're hitting slightly uphill to a blind landing area. Staying left in the fairway can provide a speed slot for added yardage. Just be mindful of the right side as the fairway comes to a halt. As you walk towards the crest of the hill you see Sheephaven Bay in the nearby distance. On a clear day you can see for miles. Just be sure to refocus on your approach -- with the green nestled down below. Any player walking off the green in four strokes should have a Guinness awaiting them at the clubhouse!
Once you get past the 6th Sandy Hills gives players a bit of a respite for the remaining holes on the outward half. Mind you -- I never said the word easy or simple. The par-5 8th is a gem -- reachable certainly for the strong players but the falloff to the left of the putting surface is absolutely vintage stuff -- you miss on that side and it's almost a near certainty that birdie, and possibly even par, will not be marked next to your name on the scorecard. The 9th is a quality par-4 -- featuring a split fairway bolstered by a center-placed grass bunker to a green appropriately contoured.
The inward half commences with one of the most daunting tee shots you encounter at Sand Hills. The 10th starts from an elevated tee and you see the green in the nearby distance. The hole is not especially long at 405 yards but again you face a fairway that bottlenecks. Strong players can attempt to get near the green but the risk is truly high and the gain fairly little. The slightest push to the right will have you say aloud to your partners -- re-load. The green is one of the toughest too. Banked from back to front and placed on a slight angle that puts those on the left side in a demanding position. There are other longer par-4's at Sandy Hills but the 10th is pound-for-pound just stellar stuff.
The stretch of holes from #11 thru #14 give the player a bit of an opportunity to score well but none of the holes is a pushover. They just seem easier than what you've already encountered.
The 15th begins the final quartet of holes to the finish and it's a top flight hole. Playing 468 yards and often times with a helping wind -- the hole can be just as tough downwind. The key is getting on the fairway and securing as much run as possible. The green is devilish to hit and hold -- angled superbly and featuring falloffs that will propel away all but the surest of approaches.
The 16th is a fine par-3 -- playing usually back into the wind to a green sloped noticeably from back to front. Any shot hit long or too far to either side will likely not walk away with anything less than bogey. Interestingly, the 17th and 18th holes both play the exact same distance -- however -- the former is a 5 par and the latter a 4. Should good fortune shine on the player with a birdie at the 17th -- it's just as easy to give it right back with a bogey at the home hole. Again -- the final hole features a bottleneck fairway and the necessity to avoid bunkers guarding the entrance to the green.
Sandy Hills is for players who relish an ultimate challenge. I can only hope ownership will thin out the rough in certain places - not to make it easier per se -- but to allow for attempts at recovery. Such recoveries would not mean the wherewithal to get to the green in all situations but to minimize the proclivity for lost balls and slow play which can sour the day for many. Such a modification would only raise the overall quality of the course.
Part of the issue for Sandy Hills specifically is its remote location. Rosapenna is neither in the immediate Dublin or Belfast metro areas nor the highly trafficked tourism areas in the southwest corner in and around Shannon. The range of golf in the northwest of Ireland is certainly a visit that needs to be realized in order to gain an overall appreciation of what vintage Irish golf is about. Sandy Hills is akin to Darth Vader and like any Jedi knight you the golfer had best be able to command one's light sabre -- because when you arrive at the 1st tee the game is most certainly on and you had best be ready.
by M. James Ward
Date: March 29, 2017