Rosapenna (Sandy Hills) - Donegal - Ireland

Rosapenna Golf Resort,
Downings,
Letterkenny,
Co. Donegal,
Ireland


  • +353 (0)74 91 55301


Visit Golfbreaks.com for a golf holiday at Rosapenna (Sandy Hills)

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.

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Reviews for Rosapenna (Sandy Hills)

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Description: Rosapenna's fabulous new Sandy Hills golf course was designed by Pat Ruddy and opened for play in July 2003. Rating: 8.4 out of 10 Reviews: 53
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Gary Vaulks
We played this course in Summer 2008. Great setting, some lovely holes and pretty tough .. but the overall feeling was disappointment mixed with sadness because the course was in such poor condition. Tees, fairways, aprons and greens were lacking some TLC. What should have been a truly great course was just ordinary.. sorry.
December 27, 2008
4 / 10
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Patrick McGarey
I played this course in June 2008, several years after playing Rosapenna's Old Course. I would have to give Sandy Hills the higher ranking of the two, since the Old Course is a mixture of a handful of GREAT links holes on the front nine and too many (non-links) holes on the back nine with a "cheap muni course" feel. Sandy Hills is tight, and laid out through monumental duneland. Hitting the ball straight off the tee will save you much grief and many strokes - but isn't that always the story in links golf? My round was played during somewhat of a drought, so the rough is probably even tougher than what I experienced. I'd like to stay at the hotel next time, since it looks marvelous. Not the easiest place to get to, but worth the effort. P. McGarey
November 06, 2008
8 / 10
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Jim McCann

Rosapenna (Sandy Hills) - Photo by Jim McCannI cannot add anything to what has been said before about how tough this course is… exacting, unforgiving, unrelenting – they all apply in equal measure!

My playing companion said it was the hardest course he had ever played and this guy has played EVERY course in Scotland!

If you’re looking for holiday golf in this part of Donegal, then go elsewhere. If, however, you want a stiff examination of your golfing ability then you must play Sandy Hills.

Jim McCann

June 18, 2008
9 / 10
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Tim Browne
This is a fantastic site for a links course. The shape and routing of the individual holes is very good. The sixth hole is clearly the best hole on the course and is world class. I feel that this course is too difficult because so many shots to greens are played to elevated targets, often with bunkers to carry. There is no way to play a running links shot on to many of these greens. As a result it is a really tough test of golf that could be considerably improved by several more friendly approaches to greens. This could become a fantastic course with some alteration.
January 02, 2008
8 / 10
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Martin McMahon
I played here in October with 2 higher-handicapped friends (16 and 20). After our round, we trooped into the proshop to say how fabulous a course it was, and we would be back asap. I'm staggered to read some of the negative reports below.SH is a very exacting test indeed but a fair one, with all laid out plainly in view. Iit is also excellent value for money in a country where good value is increasingly hard to find. More importantly, it a hugely enjoyable challenge set in jaw-slackening scenery, which adds up to a course that is now one of the very best courses in Britain or Ireland, and I've had my game dismantled on many of the other contenders. Martin McM
November 27, 2007
10 / 10
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Chris
Sandy Hills is a tough course. Plain and simple. It is also a course where local knowledge and a sense of direction come in very handy. As such, it can be an incredibly frustrating place to play if you are hoping to play to your handicap, especially the first time round. That said, I found it to be a riveting, memorable, and extremely impressive golf course and one of the best I have played in Ireland. The routing takes you through some of the most extreme and tumbling terrain found anywhere in Ireland, and Ruddy makes no apologies for this fact. Intelligently, perhaps diabolically bunkered, there is much to contend with here, from tee to green. The green are big here, so conceivably they serve as ample targets, but do to the uneven nature of the terrain, the bunkers, and the hard fast ground, playing to the greens is quite difficult. This is the only issue I have with the course, since as a course that is long from the tips, you are forced to play some longer clubs to greens which are impossible to hold. Mr. Frank Casey has done a good job of cutting back the rough, making the course more playable, and as the course matures I would not be surprised to see some other tweaks here and there to make the course more playable for the average golfer. For a course that chewed me up and spit me out, so to speak (while swallwing up a handful of balls as well), I was thrilled to tee it up again and head back out the next morning. And while it has been a while since I was there, I can remember each and every hole distinctly in my mind. When combined with the newly constituted old Tom Morris Course, and the St. Patrick' development just down the road (though currently stalled), this area has the potential to be the best links golf destination anywhere in Ireland, likely with Sandy Hills as the crown jewel.
August 08, 2007
8 / 10
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W
I’m not surprised this course brings out so many differing opinions. It is certainly impressive, but it’s not my cup of tea. If you like your fairways to run up and down over huge mounds and between even bigger sand hills then this is for you (and can I suggest you try Carne as well). I could almost hear the noise of the huge earth moving equipment that must have been used to build this course. Nah, I’ll stick to old fashioned links courses rather than these plastic roller-coaster imitations – Helen Mirram to Pamela Anderson!
July 05, 2007
4 / 10
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Links Fan
July 17, 2007
I have read every review to date of this course, and I must say (as a Rosapenna member) the reviews are all correct! This course really is 'Beauty and the Beast'! It is a marvelous course if you are on your game (and a low handicaper), but the worst course in the world if you are off form. I am a Marketing Director by profession, and we measure customer satisfaction by repeat purchases. There are very, very few (members and visitors) who willingly return here to play. This is regularly reflected in the 'Old' course being packed and the 'New' course being empty. I would point out that the course is 100% natural with minimal earthmoving taken place during it's construction, it is 100% Helen Mirram! If anyone has the pleasure to shoot their handicap they will be in golfing heaven! Enjoy! PS. bring your packed lunch, beacuse the 'White Elephant' (sorry the Pavillion) doesn't do lunch.
Rosapenna Member
November 06, 2007
Email regarding response by “Links Fan” The so called member would not have access or details of the return business that plays Sandy Hills, as a private golf resort members would not be entitled to same. The largest tour operators in both the United States and Great Britain & Ireland repeatedly send their clients to play Rosapenna’s Sandy Hills and not the Old Links. Of all the tours that they put together in the North West Sandy Hills is a must play links every time. The Old course being packed and new course being empty is an untrue and unfair statement, all the Rosapenna Hotel residents have inclusive golf on the Old Links and the club members are only members of the Old Links and pay a very nominal green fee to play the Sandy Hills but don’t for whatever reason! The Pavilion operates all throughout the season serving snack lunches everyday and evening meals also. Some members don’t realise what they have! I am one very happy member who caddies during the summer months and I have yet to come across a golfer who did not enjoy the Sandy Hills Links whether a low handicapper or not. It seems some high handicappers are simply that because they can’t play the game too well and cannot recognise a quality course either.
Local
April 07, 2010
In regards to the comment from Rosapenna Member I would have to disagree. I am a caddy at a golf course in Sligo and as you know would ask where they are playing and what there favourites are...I would say most do play Rosapenna but often say its not great for the price...at least the ones I have meet do! One guy I caddied for had a great saying for it,'it had a few brillant holes, a few weak and the rest were ok'. Fairly good description to me. And as a low handicap myself,1, I can say that I honestly didnt like it especially the start of the front nine, although it did have some great views. Oh the Pavillion wasnt open the day I played either.
Colin Baird
This course is for devout masochists only. In particular its greens are its worst feature. Beautiful to putt on but are mostly elevated and extremely hard. They wouldn't hold on to putty. If you do visit it you will see that fairway bunkers are almost non existant. Pat Ruddy has has obviously taken into account the fact that the course is so brutally long and unfair that they are not needed. Sadly this leaves a big lack of definition from the tee. It doesn't help that the course guide is rubbish either. With a truly shocking lack of information (e.g. what's the driving line on 14?), it is yet another triumph of style over substance. No doubt Sandy Hills gets a bit easier if you play it again but I won't. Be warned about the facilities too. If you arrive of a morning (we visited in June) hoping for some coffee and rolls forget it. You have to leave the clubhouse and drive to the hotel where, if you are lucky, there might be a table available among the hotel guests and you can have a 20 quid (!) breakfast. Then again The Old Tom Morris is excellent and I would recommend it to anyone - once the temporary 8 holes "over the road" (truly awfull hillside golf) have been replaced. To see how a course should be contructed through towering dunes visit Portstewart on the Causeway Coast. THAT'S what awesome looks like.
June 11, 2007
2 / 10
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Cedric
June 12, 2007
Truly agree with the facilities,really poor,especially considering the beauty and setting of the new club house...Totally disagree with the course though,I loved every second and found the course really AWESOME!!!!
ringo
July 12, 2007
I endorse this review - they say golf is a good walk spoiled. The writer must have played this course beforehand. What IS the fascination with making every par 4 over 400 metres and every par 3 over 200? Why was each fairway constructed below small greens on such long holes and why were the greens impossible to hold? One particular hole of over 400 metres on the back nine even had a bunker guarding the green and with a long iron in your hand made it comical. If you want a fair, picturesque and imaginative challenge rather than a page from the fantasy golf hole calendar then look no further than the first 8 of the adjacent Tom Morris designed links. That type of links is Open Championship in the quality of its design - a slightly longer version to challenge better clubs and longer flying balls is where links design should go!
ryan
Thought that is was a very predictable links course. I expected better because i hears so many raving reviews. It was very expensive too! Thought the course was too unforgiving and the greens were in poor condition.
May 29, 2007
2 / 10
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Chris Jones
May 29, 2007
Predictable? Cannot agree with you...
Robin Hiseman
A very good dunes links course that compares favourably with the likes of Ballybunion, Doonbeg and Lahinch. It's a really tough test and the rough is truly savage, but I understand that work is in planning to make it a little more user friendly for the higher handicapper. It will be better for it, but I hope they don't tame it too much - it's tough and good for being so. Excellent routing, full of stunning vistas, yet with a rare sense of seclusion. Well worth the effort to get there and a course I look forward to playing again.
April 12, 2007
8 / 10
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