Missing an Opportunity (and Links)
Not long ago some friends and I went to Ireland to play the remarkable but often overlooked courses in and around Dublin. We marveled at the heaving farmland and theatrical par threes of Druid’s Heath, the subtle ingenious greens of Baltray and the wondrous European Club, a 1992 homemade masterpiece by journalist-architect Pat Ruddy that is easily among Ireland’s five best links.
But somehow we apparently were anesthetized and flown Guantanamo-style back to Greater Orlando, where we played a thoroughly uninspiring, comically overpriced, Americanized resort course beside some gazillionaire’s green horsey estate.
They call it -- oh, steel my loins -- The K Club Palmer Course.
It grieves me to say this on the eve of the first Ryder Cup held on Irish soil, but, sadly, for the legions who adore true Irish links golf, the finest on the planet, the world will soon discover that this mundane, Arnold Palmer, parkland affair is about as Irish as Wal-Mart, with half the charm.
The K Club Palmer Course -- it opened in 1991 and is the older of two Palmer resort courses that Arnie, more truthfully, approves rather than designs -- is a relentlessly average, yet needlessly pretentious affair that offers a flat tree-lined walk of some 7,335 yards from the tips that will never quicken your pulse.
There are some constructed ponds, nice hardwoods and the required artificial fountain those rugged American outdoorsmen so love, but because there’s so little natural elevation change and no sweeping vistas, unlike dozens of stunning Irish tracks, you’ll understand why the Irish golf cognoscenti don’t even rank the K Club among the country’s best parkland courses, much less among its magisterial links.
Worse yet, the K Club’s majordomo, paper packaging magnate Michael Smurfit, essentially bought the event as a jewel for his crown, creating a monument to nearly all that is rotten about modern golf. A man infatuated with his aura, Smurfit insists that all his staff call him by his honorary “doctor,” though several privately refer to him as the odiously rich Mr. Burns, from “The Simpsons.”
Now you might be thinking how impossibly rude to be saying all this as Ireland prepares for its long-overdue moment in the sun, but letter-writers to Dublin’s Irish Times couldn’t agree more.
“The golfing ‘decision makers’ have sold out to Mammon,” wrote a member of famed Portmarnock Golf Club. “A huge opportunity has been lost to show the world the real beauty of Irish golf.”
A man named Seamus wrote, “Though a keen golf fan, I’ve decided not to even try for a ticket, and I don’t think I will even bother watching on TV -- that’s how strongly I feel about this sacrilege.”
Talk about a lost opportunity. The Emerald Isle offers incomparable seaside miracles such as Ballybunion, Portmarnock, Waterville, the European Club, Carne, Enniscrone, Lahinch, two dozen more Ballywonders and we’ll throw in Northern Ireland’s consensus world top-10s Royal Portrush and Royal County Down just to irritate the Brits. Coming to the muni-ficent K Club instead of one of those jewels is like having dinner in Rome and ordering fish and chips.
No less than the BBC’s Peter Alliss remarked to Irish journalist Dermott Gilleece: “The greatest course to stage the Ryder Cup for the first time in Ireland would have been Portmarnock, [but] the PGA European Tour have sold it to the highest bidder. And with it their souls.”
Thankfully, much of the American golf press saw this train wreck coming. Golfweek, in a May article titled, “The Just OK Club,” writes that it was “stunned at how lifeless and dull this inland resort/real estate layout played [and] overwhelmed that the green fee was 350 euro -- or about $450 U.S.” (Perhaps the worst bargain in golf, that’s more than twice what it costs to play St. Andrews, Carnoustie or Ballybunion.) George Peper, formerly the editor of Golf magazine for 25 years, surveyed the best courses in Scotland and Ireland this year and put the K Club on his Ten Most Over-Rated list. “To put it bluntly,” Peper wrote, “this was the most disappointing course on my visit.”
In a country whose courses are famous for legendary sand dunes, demonic bunkers, historic quirkiness (Ballybunion’s first tee features a cemetery) and sight lines that have you looking for church steeples and ancient Celtic ruins, the K Club offers 18 holes of mum’s backyard. Croquet anyone?
Like Waterford crystal and Brazilian soccer, Irish golf is now a world-known brand and surpassed Scotland some years back for sheer golf beauty. It stands for something. We expect and deserve a certain level of quality. But at the Ryder Cup the golf world will be given an impostor, a generic American resort course that couldn’t beg tour buses to stop were it not surrounded by (reading from K Club brochures) “a sumptuously restored Georgian estate set in 550 acres of gardens, walks and lush Irish countryside with the famous River Liffey running through the grounds.” That would be the Straffan House hotel, a five-star mansion whose hallways are lined with the luscious Smurfit Art Collection and glass-encased trophy trout. It’s a lovely place -- shame the players can’t tee off from the lobby.
But I’m being a bit disingenuous. Everyone should know by now that the selection of the Ryder Cup venue has little to do with quality golf landscapes, and everything to do with maximizing profits for the event’s biennial owners -- this year, the PGA European Tour, the British PGA and the national PGAs in the rest of Europe. Money dominates the Ryder Cup like few other events in golf. The Irish government even contributed more than $20 million for marketing, yet the Irish won’t be able to see the event for free on TV.
“Let’s be clear about this, we’re talking commercialism, unashamedly as far as I’m concerned,” former European Tour executive director Ken Schofield explained to Gilleece. Schofield said that the K Club deal was sealed when Smurfit promised that his company would sponsor the European Open from 2005 to 2015. That decision, Gilleece writes in Ryder Cup 2006, “nailed the widespread, cynical view, certainly among Irish observers, that success for Dr. Smurfit was always a foregone conclusion.”
That seems understandable. To Smurfit, a Monaco tax-haven resident whose family fortune was recently estimated by the Sunday Times of London at more than $520 million, the Ryder Cup is just another bauble beside the Italian yacht, the Gulfstream jet and far-flung mansions in Paris, Acapulco, Spain’s Costa del Sol and in New York’s gauche Trump Towers. “He is absolutely lost in his own importance,” a K Club member told London’s the Independent.
Does this mean it’ll be a dull Ryder Cup? Of course not.
The drama is all about competition, not ocean views, and we’ll still weep and roar and marvel at how Tiger loses to some guy from East Whimsyshire. But that doesn’t mean those of us who love Ireland, its genuine people and its glorious mesmerizing links courses have to applaud the moneychangers as they take over the temple.
Selcraig lives in Austin, Texas, and is a former investigative reporter with Sports Illustrated. He writes for the New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian and the Irish Times, among others.