Wednesday 26 November 2014

The splendid indulgence of playing a round with Tiger

Published 11/11/2012 | 05:00

Gene Kerrigan's new book presents an alternative view of the economic crisis, suggesting that some people are actually benefiting from austerity policies. We've been subjected to the Big Lie. We are not all in this together, as this extract reveals

But this was no ordinary game of golf, this was no ordinary charity auction, and these were no ordinary people being asked to bid.

Someone obligingly kicked off: 'One hundred thousand.'

The charity auction was held in Co Limerick, and the game would be played at the Isleworth Country Club, Orlando, Florida. The successful bidder would get to play with the man then acclaimed as the greatest golfer in the world, 24-year-old Tiger Woods. Woods would team up with his friend and fellow pro Mark O'Meara. The successful bidder could bring three friends. A six-ball, over 18 holes.

Soon there was a second bid: 'Two hundred thousand.'

And another.

Auctioneer Philip Myerscough, a veteran of Goff's bloodstock sales, didn't blink.

'Bid four hundred thousand pounds.'

It was the evening of Tuesday, July 11, 2000. That year was the borderline between the Celtic Tiger boom and what was to follow.

There had been several years of economic growth, a big increase in employment -- and a surge in confidence. What would happen in the years ahead would lead to frenzied money-grabbing, followed by dramatic collapse and a country loaded with crushing debt.

But that evening was a splendid indulgence by some of the richest and most powerful figures from the wealthiest, most self-confident Irish generation ever. Word got out in bits and pieces, of course -- and it is from such evidence that we can stitch together an account of that evening. But this wasn't an occasion of vulgar boasting, it wasn't designed for PR purposes to impress the rest of us. This was a private gathering of an elite, financial and political, in a time of triumph, to raise a lot of money for good causes. It could also be seen as a celebration of wealth.

The auction was the climax of a two-day event, the third JP McManus Pro-Am Invitational Golf Tournament. It was held at the end of a banquet in a marquee tent in the grounds of Adare Manor. Millions would be raised for charity that evening.

The host for the Grand Banquet, and sponsor of the two-day charity event, was John Patrick McManus. Although a resident of Geneva, he was born in Limerick, retained a real affection for the area and maintained a mansion on 400 acres there.

It was all here, the seeds of Ireland's future: the rich men, the politicians, the celebrities. What the rest of us saw, perhaps, was a celebration of money, of absolute self-assurance -- the politics, the economics and the culture of Celtic Tiger Ireland coming into its own. The previous seven or eight years had seen terrific growth -- in money, in confidence. The next eight years would see an explosion of money.

You could measure the progress of Celtic Tiger Ireland in JP's golf tournaments and charity auctions. The first Pro-Am sponsored by McManus took place back in 1990, when JP was merely rich.

It was a modest affair, with players from Ireland and Europe. It raised £2.1m for charity. So successful was the tournament, McManus went on to host one every five years.

By 1995, JP was very rich, and his business interests and personal connections had spread. Three golfers from the US PGA circuit attended. The event raised almost £4m. Let one of those present, pop singer Chris de Burgh, set the scene for that 1995 JP McManus Pro-Am Golf Tournament and Charity Banquet:

'I went to an event in Limerick, run by a guy called JP McManus. He has had two big golf classics, and these are totally remarkable because this is a man, a very wealthy man, who started life as a bookmaker and then got involved with all sorts of other business deals -- but he's also extremely supportive of charity. . . Anyway, he had a two-day golf classic, in which I played with Christy O'Connor Jnr and various friends, including Robert Sangster and Charles Benson, a friend of his.'

By now, JP and his friends were held in great esteem in political circles. Here's Chris again. 'At the gala dinner, they had politicians falling out of your ears. There was the Prime Minister, the ex-Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader and many, many famous people.'

There was an auction at that year's banquet, too. One of the items on offer was an illustr- ation, featuring caricatures of the Pro-Am's leading players. It was bought by Michael Tabor, for half a million pounds.

Originally from London, now living in Monaco, Tabor was -- like his great friend JP McManus -- a former bookie. And Tabor owned a horse called Thunder Gulch, which had recently won the Kentucky Derby. Two months earlier, McManus had asked de Burgh, as a special favour, to write and record a song called 'The Ballad of Thunder Gulch', celebrating the horse's win.

And that evening in 1995, when the charity auction ended, Chris de Burgh took the stage and sang the song he had written to commemorate Thunder Gulch's win. Michael Tabor was -- de Burgh said later -- 'very emotional indeed'. JP McManus presented Tabor with a professionally produced recording of Chris and a band performing the song.

This unexpected gift for Tabor was typical of the amount of detail that McManus put into his tournaments. There was nothing that Tabor wanted that he could not afford, but for McManus to commission a famous pop singer to write a song about one of the highlights of Tabor's life was to demonstrate an impressive amount of thought and friendship. It was this kind of consideration that sent people away from the Pro-Am singing McManus's praises, resolving to come back next time, spreading the word among their peers in wealth.

Five years later, advance comment on the 2000 Pro-Am suggested it might top the £4m raised in 1995 by at least half a million pounds. By now, the JP McManus tournament was a significant event on the golf calendar. That year, 36 top golfers, including Tiger Woods, turned up.

'Six hundred thousand.'

Peter Myerscough accepted the bid.

So star-studded was the list of players that it provided an irresistible temptation for wealthy amateur golfers to hang out with the greats of the game ('Listen, I'd love to do lunch, but I'm hitting the fairway that afternoon, Tiger Woods is in town for a few days').

Not everyone on the advance list of players prepared by the organisers could make it, but the list promised many of the leading business people of the day: Denis Brosnan (his wealth raised in the food business), Gary McCann (bananas), Michael Smurfit (cardboard) and John Magnier (horse semen). And there were bankers present, as well as financier Dermot Desmond. There were sporting people galore, many from horse racing, along with UK Premiership stars such as Alex Ferguson, Martin O'Neill and Gary Lineker. Over the years, showbusiness personalities from Brendan Grace to Hugh Grant turned up to swing a club, as well as such business stars as Denis O'Brien. About 700 people attended the 2000 banquet and auction -- including many of the business people and politicians who would feature in the events of the next stage of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon.

A nod, a gesture, another bid for the game with Tiger Woods.

'Bid eight hundred thousand pounds.'

Mark O'Meara was on the stage, near the auctioneer. 'At that price,' he wisecracked, 'we'll throw in a free lesson!'

Another gesture from someone in the audience.

'Bid one million pounds!'

Stunned, O'Meara quipped: 'And we'll throw in a free lunch as well!'

Two more top-up bids of £200,000 each closed the bidding, and the 18-hole game with Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara was knocked down for £1.4m.

Just over two months earlier, on May 1, wealthy Americans had bid in another charity auction, with the same prize -- 18 holes with Tiger Woods at Isleworth. The successful team of four bid $204,000.

This time, the prize went to Joe Lewis, a friend of Dermot Desmond and, like his friend JP McManus, an extremely wealthy currency trader. Lewis began life in London and now lived in Bermuda. Though he wasn't Irish, his life and wealth were interwoven with a set of Irish-born people. He and they moved seamlessly across national borders, defined not so much by their passports as by their wealth.

That golf game wasn't the only prize the rich jostled to buy that evening. A Jack Yeats painting, 'The Cataract', went for £1m; a couple of tickets for Wimbledon, £80,000. A specially commissioned piece of Tipperary Crystal, signed by golfers and businessmen, went for £1.4m; a flag from the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach, signed by Tiger Woods, £1m. Woods, who won the tournament (12 under par), was reported to have donated his prize to the charity fund.

The tournament and the auction that evening raised £19.8m for charity -- a giant leap from the £4m raised in 1995.

Five years later, in 2005, at the height of the Celtic Tiger bubble, the event would raise €31m.

The gathering of the rich golfers can be seen as a victory party to celebrate the coming of age of Entrepreneurial Ireland. And just as the event could call on golf stars, so it could rely on the attendance of the political classes, including Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Propelled by a sudden surge in wealth, Ireland was well on the road to absorbing new values, and the great banquet of the New Gentry was a significant landmark on that road. Given the terrible things that had been done to Irish people in the name of traditional values, the notion of a New Ireland, with new values, was not necessarily a bad thing.

But there's an old saying about frying pans and fires.

The values that had come to dominate this new Ireland weren't sucked from anyone's thumb. They emerged from the events of previous decades -- here and internationally.

© Gene Kerrigan 2012. Extracted from 'The Big Lie: Who Profits from Ireland's Austerity?', published by Transworld Ireland tomorrow.

Sunday Independent

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