The Boys' Club
The K Club is not so much a golf course as a surreal fiefdom inhabited by Ireland's richest and most powerful citizens, and ruled by septuagenarian millionaire Michael Smurfit. His subjects call him God. By Justine McCarthy
One miracle has eluded God. Even as the angels sing his praises and homage is offered in the many mansions of his creation, glittering with the chandelier brilliance of the universe's galaxies, he stoically suffers his private tragedy. For the pity is that God can no longer swing a nine-iron. That great human leveller known as "a bad back" – the result of a skiing accident – put a stop to his golf some time around Day Seven in the calendar of creation, just when the world was put to rights with the announcement that the Ryder Cup was his. And so, while his Chosen People splurge on their individual golf fantasies (K Club member and Caribbean yacht-dweller Joe Lewis paid £1.4m stg to play a round with Tiger Woods in 2001; JP McManus is said to have beaten the same Mr Woods in Limerick, playing under an agreed set of rules queered in favour of the Irish billionaire), God can only watch from his "throne", a velvet-upholstered high-backed orthopaedic chair which the club's staff tote from room to room for his comfort. For the annual President's Dinner, the chair is positioned at the head table on a raised dais where God sips the ?700-a-bottle nectar of Petrus from his personal wine carafe.
Some American golf writers have cavilled at the K Club's selection as a Ryder Cup venue, protesting that its "safe", "bland", un-Irish manicured parkland could be in Detroit. Where were the moody, crashing Atlantic waves and the dancing leprechauns? Their mistake. The Ryder Cup, you see, has not come to Ireland per se, but to a rarefied fiefdom where the patron saints of manna-making let their hair down and God is in his heaven. A pleasure dome for the set Des O'Malley originally dubbed "the golden circle".
For its president and founder, the remarkably well-preserved septuagenarian dual British/Irish citizen and Monegasque tax resident, Dr Michael Smurfit, it is the ultimate trophy. He bought the 19th century Straffan House for £3.5m (?4.45m) in 1988, undeterred by its rumoured curse and a gallery of ghosts. (Strongbow bestowed the lands on an ancestor of the Duke of Leinster in the 13th Century and among its subsequent owners were Hugh Barton of the Bordeaux wine label; Thunderball and Never Say Never Again 007 producer Kevin McClory; the late millionaire builder Patrick Gallagher who was jailed in Belfast for fraud; and an apparatchik of the Shah of Iran, who is said to have met a grisly end. Nobody, however, seems altogether sure of his true fate, as he has been clinically eliminated from the estate's official history).
Though he shares the club's ownership with the permanently fedora-hatted Roscommon builder Gerry Gannon – the pair purchased it back for ?115m from Madison Dearborn after the American equity company spent ?3.7bn acquiring the Jefferson Smurfit Group in 2002 – the K Club is emphatically Michael's domain.
"Gerry can't seem to be able to assert his status as co-owner," says a member about the builder of hundreds of houses in the Dublin suburbs and owner of a 19-bedroom hotel, the White House, in Ballinlough, County Roscommon. "He's not exactly a shrinking violet himself. Gerry could spend half-a-million at a charity auction without thinking twice."
The unmissable brass legend inside the front door commemorating its opening in July 1991 bears Sir Michael's name (he got the knighthood from the queen of England last year), as does another plaque in the hotel which proudly records that Dr Smurfit dined there with John Bruton two days after the latter's election as Taoiseach in December 1994. There is a magisterial portrait of Michael. A biography is due to be published shortly. The second golf course is named in his honour and the seventh hole on the first course (the Ryder Cup one) is called "Michael's Favourite". Past visitors have reported that a glass display cabinet occupying a prominent spot in the hotel exhibited the military uniform worn by a famous American general in some definitive battle or other but, even more noteworthy, it was once sported by Michael at a fancy dress party in Kildare.
When he traded up his house within the K Club grounds from Villa Barton to the modestly monikered, "The New Straffan House" – a 30,000 sq ft four-storey palace-een with cinema, basement gym and 'lagoon' – he invited the Taoiseach to formally declare it open. In 1988, another Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, appointed Smurfit Ireland's honorary consul to Monaco in perpetuity, for which he is entitled to "a small honorarium", communications expenses and half the consular fee for any service rendered. He is also the K Club's president for life. One of his sons, Michael Junior, is the current captain.
"We call him God," giggles a member [joining fee of ?260,000 for 50-year membership plus ?6,950 annual subscription] because he's got an enormous ego but he's good fun. He doesn't mind being slagged, as long as it's not in print. For God's sake, don't mention my name.
"I suppose it's an unusual set-up – the club. Elitism and steps on the social ladder count for an awful lot. It's measured by wealth and who's closest to Michael. Having a designated car space really pushes you up the pecking order. Dermot (Desmond) has a reserved space. He's allowed walk inside the ropes during the Ryder Cup because he knows Michael."
There are K People. And then there are K-plus People. Alpha-affluent denizens of international rich lists, they stick together in business and in leisure, through thick and thin. In the clubhouse "Spike Bar" on any given night, the collective influence of the patrons would toss a government cabinet in the tu'penny-ha'penny place. Some of their most spectacular deals are hatched and sealed here. Giant among these men is Macroom-born stockbroker and Gibraltar tax resident Dermot Desmond whose passion for golf – which he plays off scratch – spawned the story that, when shopping for a house on Ailesbury Road, he hired a helicopter to establish which property's back garden best lent itself to a putting green. His wife, Pat, is the current women's captain.
Also members are the other two of the so-called Three Musketeers – the world's richest stallion breeder, Tipperary-born Swiss-resident John Magnier and former Limerick bookie JP McManus. These two, with Desmond, own Sandy Lane Hotel in the Bahamas where Tiger Woods got married. Being on first-name terms with Tiger is a richman's frippery.
Other K-plus People include property developers Sean Dunne, Sean Mulryan (who made Smurfit a director of his Ballymore Properties last year) Seamus Ross of Menolly Homes and Noel Smyth; Wal-Mart's chief executive Tom Coughlan; Fianna Fáil solicitor and racehorse owner Frank Ward; solicitor-about-town Gerald Kean; Monaco resident Michael Tabor, who owns horses in partnership with John Magnier's wife, Susan; Ben Dunne and his sister, Margaret Heffernan; Renault's Bill Cullen, who intends being the first civilian tourist to bag a sunbed on the moon; socialite Cindy Caffola; former Coca-Cola president Don Keogh and EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevy, an honorary member. According to one source, Bill Gates has played there several times and even the Sultan of Brunei has been spotted in the hotel, where a night in the Viceroy suite costs ?3,800 in high season and a "Sensational Pampering" or "Fairway to Heaven" spa treatment is a round ?200.
Modern Irish historians will recognise a mesh of links between many of the names on the members list (international membership costing $25,000 to sign up plus $1,350-a-year is limited to 125 places). Several are drawn, if not from a common gene pool, at least from the mists of a common history. It was at the height of the Telecom Affair in the early 1990s that Des O'Malley christened its dramatis personae "the golden circle". This was when Michael Smurfit resigned as chairman of Telecom Eirean, after it was revealed that the State company had bought the Johnston, Mooney & O'Brien site for its headquarters in Ballsbridge for £5 million more than the same property had fetched 18 months earlier. It had been acquired for £6.5 million in 1989 in a transaction to which a Dermot Desmond-linked company, Freezone, was central and in which Smurfit had an interest. The following year, Telecom Eireann bought it for £9.4 million. Around the same time, Desmond stepped down as chairman of Aer Rianta. Subsequently, a High Court inspector's investigation concluded that Desmond had benefited from the sale. The aforementioned Joe Lewis, former owner of Glasgow Rangers and a close friend of the Three Musketeers, became known as "the mystery man" in the Telecom transaction.
Michael Smurfit's evidence to the Moriarty Tribunal provided a keyhole to how the extraordinarily privileged ethos of the K Club began. He was testifying about a £50,000 payment solicited from him by Charlie Haughey in 1989. He said he phoned Haughey's money arranger, Des Traynor, to ask if he or any of his companies would be interested in joining this golf club he was assembling down in Kildare. Traynor declined the invite but asked Smurfit for money to help CJ who, he said, was in financial difficulty.
"Sometimes you get the impression that the ordinary members are a necessary evil. These boys would rather have the place to themselves," observes a slightly indiscreet member. "There was a bit of a barney when the subscriptions were raised after the second course opened. A small group of ordinary members started to rebel, but they got no satisfaction. It was made loud and clear to them that the club could happily live without them."
Demarcation prevails even between the four separate house and apartment complexes that have been developed around the grounds. Some of the longer-established members disdain newcomers who qualified for automatic membership when they bought their houses. Bertie Ahern's solicitor, Frank Ward, put his house on the market last spring for ?7.5m, throwing in two full memberships and a pair of Ryder Cup tickets. The level of snobbery has reached the point that the new-rich are looking down on the new new-rich, particularly since the arrival of lap-dance tycoon Chris Kelly.
"These guys like Dermot and the others need to be able to unwind with their own kind," explains a fellow member. "They don't want riff-raff and there's a feeling that the place is losing its exclusivity with people getting membership just because they might buy an apartment."
Another member says: "Everybody who owns a house here is having parties for the Ryder Cup. I don't think there'll be anybody who isn't anybody who won't be there. This is serious money. Go and look at the car park. That's where you see the Bentleys and the Masseratis and any new luxury car on the market. You'll see it there first."
When an American golf writer commented in the Irish Times that there were so many Mercedes cars in the K Club car park that a visitor from Argentina would assume all Irish people drove Mercs, former tennis professional Matt Doyle – K Club member "and proud of it" – riposted that, if it were only Mercs in the carpark, it must have been Ladies Day. On Men's Day, he proclaimed, it would be bursting with Aston Martins. Doyle, described as "an all-round fun guy and court jester", was installed as captain some years ago with the blessing of Dermot Desmond to frustrate solicitor Noel Smyth's ambitions for the role.
"They can be very schoolboyish," surmises a woman who visits occasionally.
On the bedside lockers in the glittering K Club hotel – complete with the Yeats Room, which is hung with more than a dozen original paintings – lies a complimentary copy of the first edition of K, the house magazine. It is a sybarite's bible, packed with advertisements for Porsches, Rolexes, champagne, hand-made carpets and Boodles diamonds. It contains an inaugural interview with "K Club President Dr MWJ Smurfit" in which he concludes: "I believe Irish people take pride in what we have here as being effectively a showcase to the world."
Detroit? I don't think so.
Ireland? You must be joking.
Cashing in is now par for the course
Golf and business have always gone club in hand, but new courses exploit tourism and corporate cash to survive. "Gone are the days when a group of guys could get together, buy a piece of land and set up their own golf course," says Seamus Smith of the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI), the sport's professional body. "It can cost upwards of ?20m to develop a course."
About a quarter of Ireland's 400-odd golf clubs play on proprietary courses, owned and run by companies, rather than by club members. A further 30 courses are not affiliated to the Golfing Union of Ireland, such as the famous Old Head, in Kinsale, Co Cork.
Unlike the traditional members clubs, owned and run by their members, proprietary clubs are owned by companies and run commercially. According to Tony McGee of PGA Ireland the newer clubs can set their own fees, well beyond the financial reach of the average golfer.
Carr Golf is a specialist tour operator, in Dublin, that deals extensively with visiting golfers, particularly from the US.
"The Ryder Cup is a corporate sporting event," says Marty Carr, the company's owner. Marty estimates that up to 50 per cent of his clients come from the corporate sector. Marty says that Ireland may be expensive, but it caters to people who can pay for the privilege.
While Ireland's golfing currently attract up to 100,000 visitors each year, Paul Rafftery of Fáilte Ireland, says that golf tourism is worth about ?150m per year – 3.75 per cent of Ireland's ?4bn tourism industry – far out of proportion with the size of the sport.
Paul Rafftery says the Ryder Cup will boost that number. "It's the biggest event we'll ever hold on this island," he says. "The Ryder Cup itself is worth ?130m."
Figures from the GUI show that numbers playing the sport have more than doubled since 1986, to 270,000, including women and children.
However, during the same period, the number of overseas members of Irish golf clubs rose by a factor of five.
Ulster has a high proportion of clubs on new proprietary courses. Of 33 clubs on proprietary courses affiliated to the GUI, just eight were in existence 20 years ago.
Joe Pilkington, of the Cloverhill golf club in south Armagh, says that golf tourism is essential to make proprietary clubs commerically viable and that it has seen a big growth in the number of visitors. Cloverhill is a relatively modest concern, but during its peak months, July to August, it attracts up to 300 golfers a week, mostly from the UK.
By contrast, the Hilton Templepatrick golf club, in Antrim – part of the Hilton Hotels Corporation – caters mainly to the corporate sector, which accounts for 40 per cent of its business. Between May and September, about 5,000 golfers – about 225 per week – visit the club. A spokesperson for the club would not disclose the cost of corporate membership at the club, but he says its less than the K Club.
The K Club in Straffan, Co Kildare, is owned by Michael Smurfit. It is one of the most exclusive clubs in the country. Individual membership costs ?80,000 to join the club and a further ?6,500 annual green fees. Corporate members can take advantage of economies of scale; four people may join for ?200,000, plus the green fees.
The K Club has about 1,000 members. Warren Adamson, Manager of Special Events at the K Club says that about 40 per cent are corporate members.
Some members of the K Club
› Michael Smurfit
› Michael Smurfit Jnr
› Sharon Smurfit
› Arthur French, estate agent
Dermot Desmond, billionaire owner of Celtic Football club, London City Airport, etc
Patricia Desmond, wife of Dermot
Gerry Purcell, scion of Purcell Meats
Miriam O'Callaghan, wife of Cork property developer Owen O'Callaghan
Gerald Kean, solicitor
Clodagh Kean, solicitor
Gerry Gannon, house builder
JP McManus, multi-millionaire ex-bookie
John Magnier, stallion breeder
Noel Smyth, solicitor
Frank Ward, solicitor
Matt Doyle, tennis player
Sean Dunne, property developer
Garry McCann, Smurfit Group chief executive
Charlie McCreevey, European Commissioner
Joe Lewis, Caribbean resident
Michael Tabor, Monaco-based racehorse owner
Seamus Ross, Menolly Homes
Gerry Houlihan, DID Electric
Sean Mulryan, Ballymore Properties
Ben Dunne, gym chain owner
Sean Barron, owner of the Pamela Scotts fashion chain and former co-owner of the Riverview club with Michael Smurfit
Tom Coughlan, ceo Wal-Mart
Paddy Wright, ex RTÉ chairman
Sarah Newman, sold her on-line hotel booking company for ?60 million
John Bosco French, estate agent
Bill Cullen, author and Renault distributor
Chris Kelly, lap-dance club owner
Margaret Heffernan, Dunnes Stores boss
Cindy Cafolla, socialite