Two Variations of Incredible Links at Ireland's Rosapenna Golf Resort

By: Steve Habel

Aficionados can sometimes be a little stuffy about the way golf courses are labeled as links, which involve criteria such as seaside location, terrain, sandy base and exposure to the elements.

Aerial View of Rosapenna Golf Resort

A trip to the remarkable Rosapenna Golf Resort, set in County Donegal on the remote Rosguill Peninsula in the extreme northwest of Ireland, gives links lovers heaping helpings of the golf they crave and a destination that stands out even among the great courses bordering the Emerald Isle's coast.

Playing golf here is like a dream, especially in the summer when there are 17-plus hours of sunshine, enough light to tee it up at 5 a.m. and walk off the last green at 10:15 at night.

Golf has been played here since 1891 at a course originally designed by Old Tom Morris, and the experience continues to expand and improve. The initial growth of the offerings at Rosapenna came in 2003 with the debut of a new 18 holes - Sandy Links, fashioned by famed Irish golf architect-writer Pat Ruddy of Ballyliffin Glashedy and European Club fame. In 2009, Ruddy routed a new front nine (the Strand nine) at the Old Tom Morris Course, bringing the facility to 45 holes.

The Stunning 14th hole at the Old Tom Morris Links

Most recently, Rosapenna's owners acquired the 370 acres and 36 holes formerly known as St. Patrick's Golf Links, in the process broadening the resort to 81 holes and making the picturesque enclave on Sheephaven Bay the second-largest links golf destination in Europe, after only St. Andrews in Scotland. (Tom Doak and Ruddy are among the designers under consideration to handle the reworking of St. Patrick's Golf Links.)

Rosapenna has been owned and operated by the Casey family since 1981, and has seen the resort grow from one 18-hole course with a 40-bedroom hotel to a resort that also boasts a four-star, 66-bedroom hotel; a leisure center; and a golf pavilion and practice facility with its own 12-hole, par-3 course alongside the lodgings.

I have to admit I knew very little about Rosapenna before venturing to Ireland last summer as part of a 10-day, eight-course excursion. Now, when folks ask me about my most memorable golf experiences in Ireland my rounds at Rosapenna are at the top of the list.

The 12th Green at the Old Tom Morris Links
at Rosapenna

Wowed by Old Tom's Work

Our trip to Rosapenna was supposed to focus on the newer Sandy Hills course, but our group arrived at the isolated resort in time to play nine on the Old Tom Morris Links before dinner. We were recommended to play the back side, and the hour and a half spent walking the track in scattered rain and some wind was worth the trip on its own.

Back in 1891, the fourth Earl of Leitrim, who owned most of the property, enticed Old Tom to come over from St. Andrews to lay out a pleasurable links in the valley between the sandy beach and a high dune ridge on the inland side. The course had to be placed in these lowlands because Morris lacked the earthmoving technology necessary to tackle the higher ground.

The site, which incorporates wide, rolling fairways amidst the undulating terrain, was so good for golf that 15 of the original 18 putting surface were completely natural. Harry Vardon and James Braid, themselves famed designers, added bunkers and length to the course in the early 20th century as the golf ball and equipment improved. But they left the greens untouched.

Statue Overlooking the 18th Green
at Old Tom Morris Links

The current back half at Old Tom Morris Links (now called the Valley nine) was originally the course's outward side and has undergone some changes (by H.S. Colt and Vardon) since Morris first laid out the track.

Ruddy's Strand Nine replaces the original back half, which played across the main road on a number of holes. These new holes offer striking views across Mulroy Bay and are routed through the low-lying dunes to the east of Sandy Hills, fitting seamlessly in with Old Tom's original work.

Together, the Strand and Valley nines play to a par of 71 and stretch 6,901 yards from the back set of three tees. The old holes in the "Happy Valley," as a 1909 newspaper article called the routing along the beach, are among the best links-style holes I've ever had the pleasure of playing.

Hole Nos. 10-13 run (highlighted by the menacing 450-yard 11th and 350-yard 13th, one of the great short par-4s in Ireland) alongside Tramore Beach and are partially protected by large sand dunes that help mitigate the winds off Sheephaven Bay. The 198-yard par-3 14th is bounded at the rear by huge dunes that create a beautiful amphitheater for the putting surface and its surrounds.

Nos. 16-18 are bordered along the right by towering dunes and the Sandy Links course and head uphill to Rosapenna's golf pavilion and a bronze statue of the Old Tom himself, a tribute to great man's work here and an ode to how special his holes truly are.

The Strand and Valley nines are a testing combination of traditional and modern links holes that bridge more than a century of golf-design influences.

No. 6 Green at Rosapenna's Sandy Links
(Photo by Aidan Bradley)

Ruddy's Sandy Links Will Humble You

Nothing that the golfers have seen on any other links will prepare him or her for what's found at Sandy Links. Where Morris, Colt, Vardon and (most recently) Ruddy routed the Old Tom Morris course on lowlands around Rosapenna's massive dunes, Sandy Links directly incorporates the massive sand mounds, creating a relentless and stunning ride across this weather-beaten land.

Each hole at Sandy Links creates a new memory from its perch above the Old Tom Morris Links. Designed to test proficient players the par-72 course tips out at 7,183 yards, but four tee sets allow the player to bite off as much as he or she can chew.

Sandy Hills' routing orients mostly north and south along high dunes and ridges cloaked in marram grass. Many tees are elevated, and landing areas that appear constricting are actually wider than one expects as decent drives often come to rest in natural bowls.

Sandy Links at Rosapenna

The first two holes at Sandy Hills are among the best starting duo anywhere. No. 1 was originally designed as a 495-yard par-4 but is still plenty to tackle as a 501-yard par-5. The second weighs in at 463 yards from the tips and plays to an almost hourglass-shaped fairway squeezed in the landing areas by mounds.

The 420-yard par-4 sixth is considered by many the best hole at Sandy Links, and with the putting surface set against a backdrop of the bay it's the most picturesque on an extremely scenic course as the tee shot over a ridge down the middle of the fairway exposes a stunning view of Tramore Bay and Muckish Mountain.

The next seven holes head back and forth among and across the dunes. No. 7 is a 196-yard par-3 that rolls down to a perfectly oval putting surface seemingly dropped between the dunes, while the 536-yard par-5 eighth ventures inland across a ridge, tumbling downhill and then ascending to a green with the Lough Salt Mountains in the distance.

The 5th Hole at Sandy Links at Rosapenna

The 405-yard par-4 10th marches back toward the beach through a valley of tall dunes and then back up to an elevated green. No. 12, a 409-yard two-shotter, takes a similar path and the 522-yard par-5 13th returns to the ridge as it snakes left then right before ending at a green guarded along the right by a huge dune.

The closing hole at Sandy Links is its longest par-4, and -at 486 yards - one of the toughest on a very difficult course. The putting surface rests beyond a mound situated about 30 yards short of the green and is guarded by two bunkers at the front to punish any shot that is not spot-on.

Ruddy has built a reputation as a links-course designer by building tracks that are a combination of splendor and menace; Sandy Hills certainly fits that bill. Perhaps the best praise given his work at Sandy Hills is that it is extremely consistent and there's not one weak hole to be found.

For the entire round I felt like I was inside a 3D version of a gorgeous watercolor painting. When you play Sandy Hills, bring a camera, a couple of ounces of courage, your steadiest swing and an ample amount of golf balls.

The journey up the narrow, winding road toward the outer reaches of Donegal and Rosapenna Golf Resort is one that richly rewards adventurous golfers. If this place is not on your bucket list of must-plays, your bucket list is not complete.

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Steve Habel is a freelance writer contributing Cybergolf news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He also works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports, and is a contributing writer for Golfers' Guide and Golf Oklahoma magazine, Texas Links magazines and Golfers Guide. Habel's main blog ( features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another ( chronicles his many travels, including playing more than 600 golf courses since 2008. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.