Northern Ireland - Made for Golf but Made by Geology // by Kirstin Lemon

Simplified geology map showing the location of all golf course mentioned
This summer, Northern Ireland is hosting the 148th Open Championship at the Royal Portrush Golf Club. This behemoth of an event will bring over 215,000 spectators and visitors from around the world to Northern Ireland and will be watched by a TV audience of 600 million people from over 150 different countries.

Northern Ireland isn’t a huge country but its golfing prowess certainly is. With over 90 courses and a long and distinguished history of world class players from Fred Daly, the first Northern Irish man to win the Open in 1947, through to the current group of star players which includes two Open Champions; Rory McIlroy (2014) and Darren Clarke (2011); golf is something that you simply can’t get away from.

The massive array of golf courses, located all around Northern Ireland are all vastly different, and we like to say that it’s all because of the underlying geology. For a bit of fun we thought we’d have a look at some of our most well-known golf courses, explore their geology and that of the surrounding area and see exactly why Northern Ireland is Made for Golf but Made by Geology.

Ardglass Golf Club

Situated on the south-east coast of County Down, this spectacularly located course is part links, part cliff-top in nature and the views overlooking the Irish Sea give it a truly rugged feel. The cliffs are made out of Silurian sedimentary rocks (sandstone and siltstone) and are about 430 million years old. They would have originally formed on the bottom of a vast ocean that has long since disappeared. The rocks have been squeezed as a result of plate tectonic activity so that they are now nearly vertical instead of horizontal and are often described as looking like the pages of a book.

Lough Erne Golf Resort

The shores of Lower Lough Erne at the Lough Erne Resort

Home to two championship courses, the Faldo Course (designed by Sir Nick Faldo) and the Castle Hume course, the Lough Erne Golf Resort is stunningly set on a private peninsula between Lower Lough Erne and Castle Hume Lough in County Fermanagh. Lower Lough Erne is a great example of a glacially deepened valley that was carved out by huge glaciers as they crept towards the Atlantic Ocean during the last Ice Age. The Lough Erne Golf Resort is located within the boundary of the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark.

Massereene Golf Club

Located just outside Antrim on the north shores of Lough Neagh, Massereene Golf Club is a stunning parkland course that enjoys panoramic views across the Lough. Lough Neagh is thought to be formed as a pull-apart basin and would have its origins during the Palaeocene period around 60 million years ago. As North America was pulling apart from Europe, the resulting tension in the crust would have caused crustal extension in this location because of the presence of two faults (a fracture in the underlying rock) causing the ‘basin’ to sink down. It is in this basin that Lough Neagh now lies.

Portstewart Golf Club

Portstewart Golf Club with the River Bann on the
left and views to Donegal in the right far distance

The courses at Portstewart are arguably some of the most superb in Northern Ireland with towering sand dunes and views of the Donegal Hills, the Atlantic Ocean and the River Bann all to play for. The views over the Donegal Hills provide a glimpse to some of the oldest rocks on the island of Ireland with the tiny island of Inishtrahull (made up of 1.8 billion year old gneiss) just about visible on a good day. The adjacent River Bann is the longest river in Northern Ireland, beginning its journey high up in the Mourne Mountains before weaving its way to Lough Neagh and then exiting again and travelling north before spilling out into the Atlantic at the Barmouth right beside the golf course.

Roe Park Resort Golf Club

Found adjacent to the Roe Valley Country Park near Limavady, the beautiful setting of this course has Lough Foyle and the Sperrin Mountains as its dramatic backdrop. The underlying rocks that are frequently seen exposed in the many rivers and streams are all of Precambrian age (around 590 million years old) and belong to the Ballykelly Formation. As might be expected with rocks of this age, they have been metamorphosed, or altered by heat and pressure. The majority of the rocks are psammites (rich in quartz), pelitic schists (shale-like composition) but there are also some slates and thin limestones. Many of the rocks display complex folding, faulting and extensive jointing making them very difficult to interpret but often very beautiful to look at!

Royal Portrush Golf Club

Royal Portrush Golf Club with Portrush and Ramore Head
Founded in 1888, Royal Portrush Golf Club is legendary not least because of its location with breathtaking views across the Atlantic Ocean to Scotland and Donegal. From the course you can look across to Ramore Head and the Skerries which are examples of igneous rocks (or rocks that were once molten), and now form a saucer-shaped geological feature called a sill. Molten rock would have been squeezed in between pre-existing layers of rocks around 60 million years ago where it would have cooled and crystallised into solid rock. The resulting dolerite and gabbro is more resistant to erosion than the surrounding Jurassic mudstone which has led to the formation of the headland at Ramore and ultimately the town of Portrush itself.

Royal County Down Golf Club

Royal County Down is located in the naturally beautiful links setting of the Murlough Nature Reserve along the shores of Dundrum Bay. If this wasn’t quite beautiful enough, the most striking feature seen from this course is the Mourne Mountains, home to Northern Ireland’s highest peak, Slieve Donard. The Mourne Mountains provide a magnificent backdrop and were formed around 55 million years ago as a result of ‘volcanic’ activity. Unlike the Giant’s Causeway, the molten rock (or magma) didn’t reach the surface and remained beneath in vast magma chambers where it slowly cooled and crystallised to form granite. Since then, glaciations have come and gone and as they’ve done so they’ve stripped away the overlying rock and exposed the Mourne Mountains that we see today.

Scrabo Golf Club

Scrabo Golf Club with Scrabo Tower perched atop
exposures of 'volcanic' dolerite

Located just outside Newtownards in Co. Down, Scrabo Golf Club is perfectly poised on the slopes of Scrabo Hill. The hill is composed of sandstone with its origins in a desert-like environment. Scrabo Sandstone is a member of the Sherwood Sandstone Group that formed during the Triassic period (200 to 250 million years ago) and is famous as a building stone. One of the most interesting features about Scrabo is the presence of ‘volcanic’ rocks that have been squeezed as magma into the existing sandstone at a later date. This can now be seen as vertical and horizontal intrusions, especially within the old quarries and also make up the ‘cap’ of Scrabo Hill acting as a protective layer against the ravages of the last Ice Age. It is for this reason that Scrabo Hill stands proud from the surrounding landscape and is an iconic landmark for miles around.

For more information on any of the golf courses mentioned and for many more then just click here.  

Kirstin Lemon is Team Leader for Information and Infrastructure at the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland. GSNI is staffed by scientists of the British Geological Survey and is an office of the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland.