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.
I returned for my third visit to the course two days ago and enjoyed the experience as much as when I first played here five years previously. Like my last game here, I had a fellow Scotsman in tow – who may have thought he knew all about Rosapenna from playing the Old course last August; boy, was he in for a rude awakening!
Having lost a handful of balls on the opening few holes, my playing partner was told to forget about his scorecard (as I was doing) and concentrate on the match play because I think not keeping score just might be the secret to enjoying a round at Sandy Hills.
Yes, it’s a demanding, intimidating 18 holes that grabs you by the throat as you stand on the 1st tee and only releases you as you walk off the 18th green but, for the four hours in between those points on the course, you will be given one of the most enjoyable, thrill a minute tests of links golf in all of Ireland. I can’t wait to return for another beating.