Each year, photographer Larry Lambrecht travels to Ireland to collect photos for his calendar on the links of Ireland. “On each trip, I try to find a new venue, a new jewel,” Larry said. “I’d heard about Rosapenna way up in County Donegal in the past, that there was a nice hotel there, and an old Tom Morris course. In 2003, there was word that a new course was going to opening up there, that it was going to be a Pat Ruddy design. I went over with a writer friend, Brian McCallen. We weren’t disappointed.”
The story of Rosapenna begins in 1891, when Old Tom Morris took a sightseeing ride around Donegal while visiting the nearby estate of a friend, the Earl of Leitrim. A stretch of the coastline presented itself as a promising links site, and before returning home, Morris had staked out what would come to be known as the Old Tom Morris Course through the wild dunes land. The Earl, who owned the land and built an impressive hotel, made Rosapenna a playground for wealthy Englishmen. The course attracted much attention at the turn of the century, and visiting champions (including Harry Vardon and James Braid) added a few touches to the course over the years. Only three of the greens were relaid, more testimony to Morris’s preternatural design skills. The first ten holes of the course run between the ocean and dunes to provide an honest links experience that reaches its apex on the 198-yard par-3 6th hole, a one-shotter to an elevated green with no room for error. The last eight holes head inland, as the remaining land along Mulroy Bay was just too rough to sculpt without modern land moving equipment. You’ll be asked to hit over the R248 Road several times; the road is not considered a hazard, and shots that come to rest here can be relieved without a penalty. From the 17th tee, Sheephaven Bay and the Rosapenna Hotel provide a stunning backdrop.
But Old Tom Morris is just the beginning. The story picks up again in 1981, when a local boy named Frank Casey returned to his home to buy the course after making a little money in the world beyond County Donegal. The place had fallen on harder times; the grand hotel had burned to the ground in 1962, to be replaced by a much lesser structure, and the golf course likewise fell into shoddiness. Casey, whose father had been the head waiter at Rosapenna, remembered the better days, and slowly revitalized the property. Through much hard work, he’s returned Rosapenna to its former four-star status. “Frank’s a great host,” Larry recalled. “He’s involved in every aspect of the operation. He’s there in a suit in the morning, on the golf course in the day, in a tux working as maitre de at night at the restaurant. It’s commendable to see someone so devoted to making a place a success.”
Perhaps the greatest achievement Frank Casey will be remembered for is the commissioning of the second 18 holes at Rosapenna, now known as the Sandy Hills Course. To create a bookend for Old Tom Morris, Casey called upon golf writer turned architect, Pat Ruddy. Ruddy, not well-known in the U.S. beyond the cognoscenti, is the Emerald Isle’s equivalent of Pete Dye, and has a great affection for links-style designs. Working with the benefit of bulldozers and the like, Ruddy set about slicing through the unruly dunes that Old Tom had abandoned to forge the new layout.
“Sandy Hill is a big swatch of dunes, with a golf course dropped on it,” Larry commented, approvingly. “From the longer tees, I’d imagine that it would be pretty difficult for the average player. If the wind is up, it can be pretty severe. But as far as atmosphere goes, it’s stellar. The setting is remote. You see the town in the distance – and of course, the hotel – but it’s not infringing upon the beauty. I love the ocean, the dunes, the grass, the flowers, the rabbits and foxes that you find in a wild links setting like Rosapenna. It’s unbeatable.”
Where some links courses are contrasts in the yellow of gorse, the white of the sand and the green of the fairways, Sandy Hills is a complex study in greens, with fairways, hummocks and greens offering an ever-shifting palate that’s wonderfully rich in texture. Players from the middle tees have no unduly long carries to avoid despair, and landing areas are fairly obvious. Still, wayward drives are not well tolerated; you may find your ball, but don’t count on much more than a chop shot back into the fairway. The thoughtful player who thinks through the consequences of each shot will do better here than the brainless big hitter. Elevated greens on many holes negate the bump and run approach, forcing accurate, lofted approaches. The holes on Sandy Hills are set above Old Tom’s layout, providing almost constant views across the Old Course to the ocean.
The apex of the Sandy Hills experience comes in the middle stretch, between holes 6 and 13, which bisect the dunes. On No. 6, you drive over a crest that reveals a sliver of the bay and Muckish Mountain. On par-3 No. 7, you tee off downhill to a tiny green that juts from the dunes. The 10th fairway winds back toward the sea through a valley in the dunes, with the raised green framed again by Muckish Mountain.
“Northwestern Ireland has a great collection of links courses,” Larry’s traveling companion Brian McCallen commented. “They are quintessential. Ballyliffin is way up in the north, above Northern Ireland – it seems like it’s near Santa’s workshop. It’s a colossal links, there are 460-yard par-4s on one of the 18s, the Glashedy course – tremendous stuff. Then there’s County Sligo Golf Club at Rosses Point, where you play in the shadow of Ben Bulben; the poet William ButlerYeats’ grave is just up the road. Over in County Mayo, there’s a course called Carne. It’s an Eddie Hackett design, and one of the great remote links in the world. These courses are all incredible, underplayed, and priced well below other big-name venues. I would group the assembly of courses here with any group of golf courses anywhere. When you’re this far removed from the tourist centers, you also get a taste of the real Ireland. It’s not all lace curtains and statues of leprechauns.”
“I’ve never been to a course in Ireland where I’ve felt I’ve been mistreated,” Larry continued. “I wish I could travel throughout the country and just play golf each time I’m there, but usually I have to work. Especially if the sun is shining!”
Larry Lambrecht is an award winning photographer with 15 years experience in creating successful photographic campaigns. His work has been featured in many books and calendars, including Discovering Donald Ross; America’s Linksland-A Century of Long Island Golf; Ocean Forest and the 38th Walker Cup Match; At the End of the Oaks-History of the Sea Island Golf Club; Golf’s Great Moments; Golf Magazines Top 500 Golf Holes; USGA Calendar; and the Sports Illustrated Golf Calendar. His most recent work is the coffee table book Emerald Gems-The Links of Ireland, which features photography of every links in Ireland. You can view some of Larry’s work at www.golfstock.net.
If You Go
Getting There: Rosapenna is a bit off the beaten track, in the northwestern reaches of Ireland’s most northwesterly county. The closest international airport is actually in Belfast in Northern Ireland; from here, it’s 120 miles (or 3 hours) to Rosapenna. From Knock, it’s 137 miles (3.5 hours); from Dublin, 172 miles (5 hours). Direct flights to Belfast are available from Newark, NJ on Continental (800-231-0856; www.continental.com). Eastern Airways (+44 (0) 8703 669 100; www.easternairways.com) has service to Belfast from a number of UK airports.
Course Information: Old Tom Morris Course is a par-72 layout, and plays 6271 yards; green fees for this course begin €50. The Sandy Hills Course is also par 72, and plays 7005 yards; green fees begin at €75.