Well over a century ago now, when Old Tom Morris arrived in Donegal to lay out a links at Rosapenna, he took one look at the long, thin strip of land between a gigantic moonscape of dunes and the remote splendour of Sheephaven Bay and deemed his work virtually done. Almost exactly 100 years later when Old Tom’s modern-day Irish equivalent, Pat Ruddy, was called in to add a second course here, the architect only had to glance at the unused wild, turbulent land directly adjacent to the existing layout to know that here was a site destined for greatness.
The result is the stunning Sandy Hills – there is a clue in the title – that only opened for play in June 2003 but can already fairly judged by some to be in the top dozen courses in Ireland. The contrasting philosophies of Old Tom and Ruddy can be directly attributed to the times they were living in, but the modern and particularly Irish style of building courses through the dunes rather than between and beside them is perhaps Rosapenna’s singlemost striking feature.
While Ruddy, whose proudest work is The European in Co Wicklow that he discovered and created, was on site in the 1990s, he also upgraded the second-half of the Old Tom Morris course from a curious helter-skelter of holes played up and around and finally back down the other side of a mountain to another nine holes of classic links.
So Rosapenna now boasts no fewer than 45 holes, and that, allied to the adjoining hotel and brand-new palatial ‘golf pavilion’ that opened only a year ago, makes for the most complete golf resort in the Emerald Isle. It is also one of the most remote, located in almost the very furthest corner of rugged Donegal, and spectacularly beautiful. This is a land of extremes, where tall peaks seem to climb out of the very ocean and perfectly still lakes sit between the greenest of hills.
From Donegal town it is the best part of two hours away, and slightly less than that from Londonderry, which offers the most convenient airport. One glance at the golf course, though, will tell you every last mile was worthwhile.
Sandy Hills is almost impossibly spectacular. The only danger is of sensory overload as one knockout hole follows another. Never mind poor holes, Sandy Hills only very rarely drops into the realms of average. As a test of golf it can be savagely difficult, not least because the weather carried across the Atlantic for thousands of miles is not always of the warm, still and dry variety.
In fact, it is as hard a course as you are ever likely to play. Designed with the advanced player in mind, it is every bit as intimidating as it is undeniably awe-inspiring. Every last fairway and green is cloaked in the thickest marram grass imaginable. A missed fairway equates to a lost ball, and the same can easily be true even with as little as just a short iron into some of the greens. Sandy Hills offers no bail-out areas, either. Truly, only the strongest of golfers, both physically and mentally, will survive.
Sandy Hills is almost impossibly spectacular. The only danger is of sensory overload as one knockout hole follows another. Never mind poor holes, Sandy Hills only very rarely drops into the realms of average.
Take the opening two holes alone the fairways on both of which take a sinuous path towards their distant greens. The 1st turns to the right at driving distance then doubles back over the side of a hillock. At over 460 yards, the last thing you need is to play it into the wind. The green is elevated, making it next to impossible to run a ball up onto a putting surface over 40 yards in length.
The 2nd offers little respite, despite being 40 yards shorter, snaking down another perilously tight corridor. The approach is played downhill and will most likely finish in a large bowl just short of the green.
The short 3rd and drive-and-a-pitch 4th (in the right conditions!) are more straightforward, but still perilous, and offer the first indication of how firm the greens are designed to be. Balls land here with an audible thud and tend to run on, especially when even slightly mis-struck.
Normal service is soon resumed at the 5th, a fearsome dogleg where a second shot in excess of 200 yards is seemingly unavoidable. Another raised green, with rough uncomfortably close to it on both sides awaits.
The next is shorter but ranks as the hardest hole on the course and with good reason. The drive must ideally be faded up and over the crest of a hill to a fairway that offers a view of the small green below. By rights, the approach should be played with no more than a nine iron; realistically you are more likely to need a five.
So challenging are four of these first five par fours, even a good player might reasonably play them as three-shotters to avoid disaster. Mercifully, after a near-200-yard par three played from an elevated tee at the mercy of the wind, the holes do get easier – relatively speaking. The first par five is manageable and has a much more generous-looking fairway, as does the uphill 9th.
You are now in the very heart of the dunes, the land pitching and falling all around, and the fairways representing oases of refuge among the sheer wildness of the land surrounding them. It almost feels as though they in danger of being swallowed up by the voracious rough. The par-three 11th, again played from one point of elevation to another, offers a rare broader view before the 12th plunges back down a funnel.
Of all the holes on the inward half, the toughest is surely the 15th. Not only must the tee shot be played with power and precision, but even from the middle of the fairway the green, perched in the hills, appears a tiny and isolated target.
The final short hole features the most sharply contoured green on the course, sloping dramatically from back to front, and the last par five is relatively harmless so long as the green is not missed to the right into a deep pit. Curiously, considering the difficulty level elsewhere, none of the three long holes are either particularly difficult or long. Perhaps Ruddy has an ounce of sympathy in his soul after all.
The 17th is actually listed at the same length as the final hole on the card. The latter, the par of which is a shot less, is a much more demanding proposition, played down another snaking fairway, and a view of the green for the second shot is a rare treat indeed.
In all, from the back tees, this shaggy monster of a course stretches to 7,100 yards, with a par of 71. A chance conversation later on with a barman in the hotel was revealing. He confessed that while doubling up as a handyman in the winter and being given the job of applying a fresh coat of paint to the blue markers, it took him a while to locate several of them, so far back in the dunes were they positioned. And this was a local who knows the course well.
While the regular tees are much further forward, this is still a course that will be enjoyed most by expert players – or those with an inexhaustible supply of Pro V1s. Accordingly, many of the hotel residents prefer to play the more gentle Old Tom Morris layout. Not that it is easy – far from it – just that after the rigours of the Sandy Hills it comes as a relaxing change not to hit each shot fearing it will be your last with that particular ball.
Wonderfully natural, the greens are often housed in dells while the tees are merely convenient mounds to start from, it appears. Nevertheless, as good as this charming layout is, it is the Sandy Hills that will carry Rosapenna’s reputation far and wide in the coming years. If you want to be among the first pioneers to make the trip then now is the time to plan a trip to mystical Donegal.