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VIII: Rosapenna Resort

Rosapenna Resort isn’t exactly somewhere you stumble your way into, located on the Northwest tip of Ireland’s most rugged and isolated province of Donegal, it takes a certain concerted effort to get there. Whilst ‘destination golf’ laid out in isolated corners of the world is becoming a trend more commonplace these days, golf at Rosapenna began more than 130 years ago and has grown ever since, a testament to the quality of golf, the quality of the accommodation and most importantly, the quality of the people behind it.

There is a rare symmetry at Rosapenna, merging the past with the future and the modern with the traditional – it sits as a beautifully isolated collision of old school charm and modern quality and an ideal retention of history bookended by two blokes named Tom.

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The gorgeous Sheephaven Bay is the perfect golfing backdrop at Rosapenna

The Old Tom Morris Links was the original course at Rosapenna, laid out in 1893 across what is now the least dramatic terrain on the site, but is ideally suited to links golf. The OTM Links boasts some of golf’s finest fingerprints with Old Tom Morris, Harry Colt, Harry Vardon and James Braid all touching the course. OTM is a fine example of traditional links golf, full of strategy, angles and micro-undulations. Often wrongly overlooked, the layout is a compelling chess-match with plenty of variety and challenge.

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Old Tom Morris watches over his links

Sandy Hills is a more modern Pat Ruddy designed course laid out in 2003 through the most choppy and dramatic duneland on the property. The course is big, brawny, bold and a stern test for golfers- tight fairways and perched up green sites accepting only precision. With drama everywhere around you, the course is stimulating and a perfect encapsulation of the beauty of Donegal coastline. Only across the front nine at Portstewart have I experienced dunes as overwhelming in stature. Truly one of the greatest sensory walks in Irish golf.

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The towering dunes and pushed up greens of Sandy Hills

St Patrick’s Links is Rosapenna’s newest offering and Tom Doak’s incredible design has quickly found itself at the forefront, listed at #49 in Golf Magazine’s World Top 100. A magical seaside rollercoaster of width, big slopes and elevation changes, combined with a phenomenal set of Doak greens makes St Patrick's a place which I could play every day of my life and never get bored. The layout strikes an ideal balance of playability, challenge and flat out fun, showcasing the idealisms of modern golf design - a true canvas for creativity and imagination. What will in all likelihood be Ireland's final links course constructed was truly one of the great golfing thrills of my lifetime!

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Is there a more magical site for golf than that of St Patrick's Links?

After 3 magical days at Rosapenna I started thinking about how best to sum up the experience without writing 10,000 words waxing lyrical on its brilliance. Instead, I wrote down the first 15 moments of joy which came to mind over the course of our 72 hour stay flooded with them:

  1. The Approach: The last 20 minutes of the drive into Rosapenna from the North winds through some of the skinniest 2-lane roads sandwiched between stone walls- a daunting prospect to negotiate! However, the white knuckle journey is perfectly offset by the gorgeous surrounding mountains, lakes and coastline – pure, isolated beauty.

  2. The Rooms: Rosapenna boasts beautiful spacious rooms, each with their own separate lounge and plenty of room to store golf bags and luggage. The perfect place to wind down and put the feet up after a day out on the links.

  3. The Showers: There are few better feelings in life than walking in from the wind and the cold to a proper hot shower. Rosapenna may lay claim to one of the most elite golf showers in the planet, a true indulgence after a couple of weeks on the road!

  4. The Diversity: One of the special things about the resort is the range of people and groups which stay and play- Rosapenna is a melting pot. Over the course of our three days on site there were families, groups of lads, couples both old and young all having the time of their lives on site. A trip to Rosapenna can be whatever you want it to be and that’s what makes it special, perfect for the guy who wants to play 36 a day until they drop, a group who want to play golf in the morning and drink beers in the afternoon, or the couple who want to cruise along, eat good food, spend time at the beach and play a bit of golf.

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The resort sits steps away from the stunning Donegal coastline

5. Dining room & Bar Views: Whether eating breakfast or having a post-round beer, the gorgeous views across Sheephaven Bay are one of the resort’s great pleasures, always warranting an extra beer or coffee to soak them up just a little longer….

6. A Variety of Golf: The key to an engaging golf resort is golf courses which are distinct from each other, providing variety across the board. Rosapenna’s three courses each possess their own identity and style of golf, making every day out there compelling.

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St Patrick's green varied flowing green complexes sit beautifully amongst the landscape

7. The Pro-Shop at St Patricks: Whether temporary or permanent, the shed which acts as a hybrid pro shop/outdoor bar area is refreshing and sends the message that at St Patricks, golf is at the forefront. Tucked amongst a rugged dunescape, there is a perfect symmetry in its simplicity and in many ways I hope it’s never replaced by anything large or modern.

8. The St Patricks Greens: When I think of the Tom Doak designs I have played (Barnbougle Dunes, Te Arai North, Tara Iti, Gunnamatta & Cape Kidnappers) the design of the greens always seems to come to the forefront- St Patricks is no different. Doak has built a set of the most interesting greens on the planet, their contours perfectly balanced and offering opportunities to play some of the most creative and downright fun approaches. They’re the type of greens which had us dropping balls all over the place just for the opportunity to see a slope in action.

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St Patricks' adventure routing utilises the coastline remarkably 

9. The Magic of St Patricks’ Routing: The routing of a golf course takes you on a journey and at St Patricks, Tom Doak has created a remarkable voyage over and around towering dunes, towards and along the sea, each change in direction delivering a new perspective. The layout’s interaction with the seafront and the variety of ways in which the dunes are tackled is at centre of why the course brings so many smiles!

10. St Patricks’ 14th Hole: When I think of links golf, engagement with the sea comes to the forefront of my mind and the 14th hole at St Patricks brings Sheephaven Bay front and centre. A sharp dogleg right towards the sea and bunkers covering the corners, a wayward tee shot could have you playing from the beach on the left or a blind approach from the bunkers on the corner. Truly one of the most spectacular holes on the planet, both visually and strategically.

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The gorgeous 14th greensite at St Patrick's

11. The approach into the 10th green at St Patricks: Possibly the biggest smile and laugh of the day was the semi-blind approach into the par 4 10th. From the fairway all we could see was the tip of the flagstick, no warning of the green surrounds or internal contours. To the left of the green is a huge kicker which pushes shots right toward the flag- the ideal line is actually about 60 feet left of the flag and watching balls feed in from the left at a 90-degree angle is one of Doak’s magical fingerprints on the round.

12. 6th Hole at Sandy Hills: Amongst a property full of stunning walks, cresting the hill of the 6th hole at Sandy Hills is near the top! With the green perched below and the ocean beyond perfectly framing the rugged Irish coastline, it stopped us in our tracks immediately – the type of moment which makes the journey worthwhile!

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Approaching the 6th green at Sandy Hills

13. The Par 3’s at Sandy Hills: The collection of par threes at Sandy Hills are a proper test of golf. Each asked us a different question and played into greens sloping away from the flag designed to reject balls- an exacting test of iron play.

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The par 3s at Sandy Hills are loaded with drama

14. The back 9 at Old Tom Morris: In my opinion, the back 9 at OTM is the most traditional links experience across the entire property. Rather than intimidating visuals and sever land movement, it’s subtle layout required approaches from the proper angles and firm and fast conditioning brought the ground game into play beautifully. An exceptionally underrated stretch of golf!

15. The 13th Hole at OTM: Something of a rare commodity in links golf is a sharp dogleg. OTM’s short par 4 12th hole bends sharply to the right, its blind tee shot a daunting proposition and the temptation of biting off more than you can chew always lurking. A thrilling golf hole amongst a fantastic stretch.

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The flowing linksland of the Old Tom Morris back 9

Our three days at Rosapenna were pure golfing magic and a real treat amongst an incredible stretch of travel. A mere 3 hour drive from Dublin Airport, there truly is no excuse for leaving Rosapenna off an Irish itinerary, and doing so would be a huge mistake. To my mind Rosapenna does an incredible job across its three courses of packaging up the Irish golfing experience into a sensational resort. Showcasing traditional links golf and two completely different iterations of modern golf course design, each course compelling from top to bottom, and in extremely different ways.  

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