Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Our collective, epic arse

I don't know much about golf but those "This Will Be Epic" billboards are already bugging me.

From today's Irish Times.

Overrated, overpriced, over here

Ryder Cup venue: Bruce Selcraig rages against what he sees as the missing of a glorious opportunity to show off Ireland's true golfing riches to the world

Not long ago I and some other American golf writers spent a week in and around Dublin playing some of your splendid courses. We'd rather be coal miners, of course, but some of us do this for a living - it was my seventh trip to Ireland - and while my children go months without decent clothing, they're happy that my short game is improving.

We played some exceptional courses, from the heaving farmland and magical par-threes of Druid's Heath, in County Wicklow, to the subtle, ingenious greens of Baltray - perhaps the best Irish course unknown to Yanks - and finally, the European Club, where the hospitality and seclusion of Pat Ruddy's home-made masterpiece easily puts it among my five favourite Irish courses.

Oh, and somewhere along the trip, we apparently were anaesthetised and flown George Bush-rendition-style back to Florida or Texas, where we played a thoroughly uninspiring, comically overpriced, Americanised resort course beside some gazillionaire's lovely, green, horsey estate.

They call it - oh, steel my loins - The K Club.

I think you're having a big tournament there in September.

I hate to sound rude to my many wonderful Irish golf friends in your long-overdue time of pride - and please know that I love Irish golf like a vital organ, perhaps a kidney - but the K Club and its major-domo, cardboard-box baron Mike Smurfit, and his regal hosting of the Ryder Cup as a jewel for his crown, symbolise nearly all that is rotten about modern golf. And worse, as many have said before me, the K Club Palmer Course is a relentlessly mundane track that has no business representing Irish golf.

Thanks for dinner. I must be running off now.

Seriously. Was there not some adult in charge when the decision was made that Ireland's first Ryder Cup, a monumental event that will forever imprint Irish golf upon the world's frontal lobe, would be played at the World Headquarters of Boring, Pretentious Golf? Think of the children watching TV in Argentina who'll be asking (through an interpreter), "Mummy, I thought Ireland was near the sea?" or "Look at how everyone in Ireland drives a Mercedes!" or "Why are the American wives still dressed like cheerleaders?"

Bringing Ireland's first Ryder Cup to the charmless Palmer course is like having Keira Knightley invite you to her bedroom - to move furniture. It's like going to Rome for dinner and ordering fish and chips.

Yes, America has provided some pretty lacklustre venues for the Ryder Cup - Kentucky's Valhalla in 2008 is a snoozer, too - but American golf is not synonymous with the game's purest ancestral ground.

Dear Ireland, repeat after me: You now possess the finest collection of golf courses in the world. Period. There is no more competition with Scotland, where they're still talking about Old Tom Morris's niblick. You have Ballybunion, Portmarnock, Waterville, the European Club, Carne, Enniscrone, Lahinch and two-dozen more Ballywhotsits. And we'll throw in Royal Portrush and Royal County Down just to irritate the Brits.

In other words, you have Rembrandt, Cezanne, Gauguin and Michelangelo hanging in your kitchen, and in September you're inviting 800 million TV viewers to watch your Disney World home movies.

Gosh, I'll bring the Coca-Cola.

You should have grabbed your sheep and risen as one bleating mob and demanded the Ryder Cup be moved to a magisterial links that would make your millions of expats cry in their Guinness. (Portmarnock, with its silly, all-male policy, was considered a worthy and well-funded site, but Smurfit's wallet obliterated it. All the other great links seem to have been excluded because of infrastructure limitations, but was there honestly a problem that six years of planning and fund-raising would not have solved?) I realize the Irish golf cognoscenti were making all these complaints back in January 1999 when the K Club was officially selected, but only lately has the American golf press awakened to the K Club calamity.

Golfweek magazine, in a May 27th article titled, The Just OK Club, writes that they were "stunned at how lifeless and dull this inland resort/real estate layout played (and) overwhelmed that the green fee was 350 - or about $450 US." (For comparison: St Andrews Old Course, 175; Carnoustie, €152; Ballybunion, 150, Portrush, 152.)

Frank Hannigan, former director of the United States Golf Association and a spirited columnist, challenged readers to name any Arnold Palmer-designed course that was merely "good, not great". George Peper, formerly the editor of Golf magazine for 25 years, just surveyed the best courses in Scotland and Ireland and put the K Club on his "10 most overrated" list.

"To put it bluntly," Peper wrote, "this was the most disappointing course on my visit."

Why? Well, rating courses is certainly subjective, but the K Club Palmer Course they'll be using - opened in 1990, the older of two Palmer courses that one would more honestly say he approves, rather than designs - is a relatively flat, featureless walk (at 7,277 yards) that pales in comparison not only to Ireland's incomparable links courses but also to your exhilarating, rolling parkland courses, such as Fota Island, outside Cork, Druid's Glen, Belvoir Park and Malone Golf Club in Belfast.

In a country whose courses are famous for legendary sand dunes, demonic bunkers, historic quirkiness (Ballybunion's first-tee cemetery) and sight lines that have you looking for church steeples and ancient Celtic ruins, the precious K Club offers 18 holes of mum's backyard.

There are some constructed ponds and hillocks - and the required artificial fountain Yanks adore - but because there's so little natural elevation-change and no sweeping vistas - unlike Druid's Heath, unlike Killarney - your pulse never quickens. On my visit, among journalists everywhere, I rarely saw a camera pulled in delight. Just duty. Trust me - there are 14,000 golf courses in America, and 1,000 of them look like the K Club but cost 300 less to play.

Does this mean it'll be a dull Ryder Cup? Of course not.

The drama is all about competition, and we'll still weep and roar like normal.

Fortunately, they've also changed the routing, so that two of the last three holes - seven will play as 16 - are reachable par-fives with some watery danger and potential drama. But during the first 15 you might want to do some gardening.

How do the players feel? France's Thomas Levet told me: "It's a pity. The Ryder Cup deserves to be played on an Irish links," but America's links-loving Jim Furyk, like so many, shrugs off the capitulation to big-wallet venues: "It's the day we live in. You learn to accept it."

Diplomats like Vijay Singh and Bernhard Langer say the K Club is a fine test. "It's not as bad as they say," Vijay told me last month, with all the passion of Retief Goosen at nap time.

But that's not really the issue. They'll play anywhere for money.

Irish golf stands for something. It's now a world-famous brand. It has an identity, like Waterford Crystal and Brazilian soccer. We expect and deserve a certain level of quality.

But the golf world is being offered an impostor, a generic American resort course that couldn't beg tour buses to stop were it not surrounded by - let me get my press packet - "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 affair whose hallways are lined with the luscious Smurfit Art Collection and glass-encased trophy trout. No two of the 69 individually decorated rooms are alike, including the hand-painted bathrooms. The nicest cost more than 1,000 a night.

Sounds like your home course, right?

The irony about this whole greedfest is that all of official Ireland is simply giddy with dreams of the hordes of tourists who will discover Ireland after three days of worldwide TV coverage. But are they gonna see any courses they'll want to play or hotels they can afford?

Here's a newsflash: the millions of Americans who come to see you every year aren't millionaires, and most of us love Ireland precisely because your people and towns are unpretentious and authentic - not Americanised.

But I'm being a bit disingenuous here.

Everyone knows by now the selection of the Ryder Cup venue has nothing to do with quality golf and honouring the home country, and everything to do with maximising profits for the event's biennial owners - this year, the PGA European Tour, the British PGA and the national PGAs on the Continent. Sure, the venue has to be able to handle crowds, and you need good roads and plenty of hotel rooms, but if the golf lords thought they could put everyone in a Beijing car park and make more money we'd all be shopping for chopsticks.

Money dominates this event like few others in golf. Is it really true that the Irish Government contributed €16 million of your tax money just for marketing - 5 million of which went to the European PGA Tour - and that you'll not even be able to watch the thing on free-to-air television?

Even the compliant American masses might not swallow those worms. We may look the other way on torture and global warming, but tamper with our God-given right to fall asleep to golf on TV and you're headed for fist city.

"Let's be clear about this, we're talking commercialism, unashamedly as far as I'm concerned," explained the former European Tour executive director Ken Schofield to author Dermot Gilleece in his book Ryder Cup 2006.

Schofield reportedly said the K Club deal was sealed when Smurfit - oops, that's a mandatory Doctor Smurfit for all his "speak when spoken to" serfs - promised his company (once Jefferson-Smurfit, now absorbed by the US firm Madison Dearborn) would sponsor the European Open from 2005 to 2015. That decision, Gilleece writes, "nailed the widespread, cynical view, certainly among Irish observers, that success for Dr Smurfit was always a foregone conclusion."

They were right. To Smurfit, a Monaco tax-haven resident whose family fortune was recently estimated by the Sunday Times of London at 403 million, the Ryder Cup is just another bauble beside the Italian yacht, Gulfstream jet, helicopter commutes and far-flung mansions from Paris to Acapulco, including what the Independent of London reported in 2002 featured a 40,000 sq ft palace beside the Marbella Club on the Costa del Sol, estimated at $40 million, and an apartment below Donald Trump's in New York City's gauche Trump Towers.

"He is absolutely lost in his own importance," a K Club member told the Independent.

So, Mike Smurfit bought himself the Ryder Cup. Sad, but not a felony. If you had his loot - after giving most of it to Darfur refugees, of course - you'd have bought the Cup too. But that doesn't mean those of us who love Ireland and its incomparable links courses have to applaud the moneychangers as they take over the temple.

A former investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated and US Senate investigator, Bruce Selcraig (selcraig@swbell.net) now writes for the New York Times, Golf Connoisseur and Smithsonian, among others.

© The Irish Times

No comments: