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. A triumvirate of former British Open Champions – Old Tom Morris, James Braid and Harry Vardon – created the Old course and it still represents a fine challenge. But it was Pat Ruddy, the man behind the European Club, who put Rosapenna firmly on the map. His new course, Sandy Hills, will surely end up on every serious golfer's must-play list.
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.
Five years ago, in my last review for Sandy Hills, I ended by saying “I can’t wait to return for another beating”. Well, that day arrived today and despite being truly beaten up as anticipated, I thoroughly enjoyed reacquainting myself with this beast of a course.
Before playing, general manager Frank Casey Jnr pointed out a few changes designed to ease the challenge a little since I was last here. A number of the greens have had penal front bunkers removed, allowing a running shot to be played, though several holes have had fairway bunkers installed to tighten up the visual options off the tee.
The par five 13th has been redesigned (with a new green installed) as has the 18th, where new mounding behind the green keeps the car park out of sight now. Looking back at the notes on my scorecard now, I’d forgotten just how good the uphill par four 9th is as its split fairway offers two exciting approach options and the heroic carry par threes at holes 3 and 11 are two of my favourite short holes anywhere.
I believe that greens on holes 10, 12 and 16 are due to be remodelled next winter and that’s good to hear about the par three 16th in particular because the gradient of its back to front putting surface is way too severe.
The Irish Ladies’ Close and the Mens’ Inter-Provincial competitions are due to be played here in a few months and I suspect the elite amateur players will be delighted with the changes that have been made to the course. Nonetheless, they should not anticipate it being any easier to post a score...