When Old Tom Morris visited the northwest coast of County Donegal in 1891, he couldn’t help but notice a stretch of land that seemed perfectly suited to golf. And so, the story goes, he laid out some golf holes that became the first Rosapenna Links in 1893.
Playing the Old Tom Morris Links at Rosapenna today brings up a modern version of what golf was about back in those days.
The fairways wend their way between grassy sand dunes. The ball hops around on bumpy fairways. Pot bunkers act like magnets for golf balls on the rolling ground. Elevated greens of varying sizes either accept or reject bouncing balls, depending on their subtle tilts.
All in all, it’s a wonderful way to play golf.
This original Rosapenna course was joined in 2003 by the Sandy Hills Links, a Pat Ruddy design that updates the links experience. Sandy Hills is a much sterner test that can stretch to 7,255 yards, and it’s used for a variety of competitive events.
What we encountered during our stay at Rosapenna were two kinds of golfers. The younger and more talented players opted for Sandy Hills, which generally sits on the high dunes. The older golfers, including many couples like Liz and I, enjoyed the sporty challenges of the Old Tom Morris.
The real charm of the Rosapenna Golf Resort, though, is the way the golf comes together in a luxury hotel setting that includes first-rate accommodations and a mouth-watering dining room.
This is one of those old-style inns where guests have the same table, “their table,’’ for the length of their stay. The food was remarkable, including stone crab claws that would have played well in South Beach, amazing lobster and delicious Irish lamb.
Perhaps because of its remote location, Rosapenna offers its package of enchanting golf, fine dining and luxury lodging at surprisingly affordable rates.
The immense picture windows of the Vardon Restaurant offer inspiring views of Sheephaven Bay and remarkable lingering sunsets. The room is named for Harry Vardon, who added length and bunkering to the Tom Morris course in 1906.
Most of the attention is on Sandy Hills, among Ireland’s top courses. It’s a stern test where staying on the fairway is imperative but a tall order. The single-digit handicappers might not stray from there while at Rosapenna, but Liz and I found the Old Tom Morris a wonderful old-time links.
If the course was a big scruffy in places, it also was undergoing some conditioning improvements. But the layout is a treat. It’s old-time links golf that doesn’t beat you up.
The front nine, set back from the water, had a nice rolling feel to it. The back nine, just above Tramore Beach, had more terrain to negotiate.
With my right knee still balky, I again cast aside my disdain for buggies (riding carts) and was able to focus on golf, rather than my sore and achy knee.
Buggies, I was pleased to learn, are pretty common in Ireland, even on links courses. I hope to return to walking on our next visit. But it’s nice to know the riding option is there when you need it.
Although Rosapenna was only about 60 miles from Ballyliffin, the trip took nearly two hours, owing to some roads that weren’t wide enough in some places for two cars. (The 160-mile trip from the Dublin airport, on better roads, takes about 3-1/2 hours.)
The narrow unimproved roads were fun for Liz, who loves to drive. I’m not sure if we needed to be on such tiny roads, but Google Maps, a remarkable invention, got us there. And we saw some lovely terrain—hilly peaks, bayviews, steep sheep pastures—as we toured around the River Swilly, which is more of a bay as it approaches Letterkenny, the largest town in County Donegal, with a population of about 20,000.
From the outside, the Rosapenna Hotel is relatively nondescript. Once inside, though, it’s as luxurious and comfortable as can be. And it’s filled with historical items and photos that illustrate Rosapenna’s remarkable past. These include a photo of a baby-faced Rory McIlroy holding up a trophy won here in 2005. In an Irish version of “George Washington Slept Here,” virtually every northern course has a similar shot of McIlroy either winning a tournament or setting the course record.
As with Ballyliffin, Rosapenna was a stop where we wish we’d had more time. The tide rolls in and out for hundreds of yards at Sheephaven Bay, and we were envious of those able to walk on the beach. The locals even drive their cars right onto the beach for get-togethers.
Rosapenna, which has undergone many changes in its long golfing history, has abundant and fascinating practice areas. It even has buggies parked at the hotel, for golfers who simply want to ride over to its modern new Golf Pavilion, which has a nice pub with excellent views of the golf course and Sheephaven Bay.
It’s simply a good place to play fine links golf at a relaxed pace in a very comfortable setting.
For more information, visit the website, http://www.rosapenna.ie/
Please click on photos for an enlarged view.