Sunday 18 March 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Living proof that nothing is impossible

Michael Smurfit is rightly proud of what he has achieved at The K Club

Dr Michael Smurfit:
Dr Michael Smurfit: "This tournament was dying until two or three years ago... Now we’re looking at a very bright future." Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

Ten years ago, Dr Michael Smurfit couldn't see the Ryder Cup returning to this country for the foreseeable future. Now, he is looking towards a possible staging at Adare Manor in 2026, with a pledge to fully support such a bid from JP McManus, if it comes.

The owner of The K Club has also taken on board the declared preference of Dubai Duty Free for a return of the Irish Open to the Straffan venue next year, though the ultimate decision will rest with the European Tour.

It was Thursday morning and Dr Smurfit was in the newly-extended hotel on site, looking towards a lunchtime start by Rory McIlroy. "I plan to walk just about every hole with him," he said. "He's a delight to watch, though I may also pick up other matches along the way."

Given its launch in July 1991, this is a momentous year in the life of the Kildare resort - its silver jubilee no less. It is also the 10th anniversary of the 2006 Ryder Cup which remains the biggest international sporting event ever to have been staged in this country. And in August, Dr Smurfit will be celebrating his 80th birthday.

Reflecting on what became an extremely trying week in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, he admits: "I sometimes shake my head at the fantastic achievement that it was." Remarkably, the event was completed on schedule, not least due to outstanding course management by the greens superintendent, Gerry Byrne, and his staff.

"The Ryder Cup has since become extraordinarily expensive," says Dr Smurfit. "You're looking at a figure in excess of €100m. But I wouldn't be a bit surprised if JP McManus decides to go for it at Adare Manor. That would be his legacy. And I would be delighted to help him get it, in any way I could.

"Back in 2006, I went on the record as saying that we wouldn't see another Ryder Cup in Ireland in the foreseeable future. It had been such a success, however, that I later modified that view, because of what we're capable of doing in this country when we put our minds to it."

He then pointed to the disclosure by Colm McLoughlin after Wednesday's Pro-Am that he would like to have the Irish Open back at The K Club next year, which I confirmed with the Dubai Duty Free official the following day. "I didn't know he was going to say that," says the owner. "I would certainly like to have it back here, but there are financial considerations. For instance, when we do the accounts for this current staging, I would imagine we'll be looking at an outlay of about €1m.

"This tournament was dying until two or three years ago. But the involvement of Rory and his Foundation prompted Dubai Duty Free to step up to the plate. And between them, they've transformed the event.

"Now we're looking at a very bright future. And taking on board its North-South dimension, I don't see why we couldn't institute an Irish Open rota of courses, just like they have for the Open Championship. Obviously we would want to be involved and I could imagine the same reaction from Adare Manor. We don't have to limit the event to links courses.

"Look at the facilities we have here for the players, like a swimming pool and exercise room. And the conditioning of the golf course. Very few links venues, with the possible exception of Turnberry, can compete with these sort of amenities. I've talked to the players and they're very happy here. In fact, one of them went so far as to suggest he'd love to fly in his whole family. He never imagined the resort being this good."

As we talked, it was fascinating to observe the old entrepreneurial drive which initially delivered an admirable venue where 13 stagings of the European Open came to be played. Then came an economic downturn which rocked businessmen like him to the core.

It seemed less extreme when he described it as "a trough," but the realities were inescapable just the same. "It was a huge setback for us," he says. "Our membership was decimated after the Celtic Tiger collapse, and we're just beginning to see a trickle of members back. Which we hadn't seen for a few years."

"The hotel is doing better than it was two years ago, when we were losing considerable sums of money. We're now moving slightly into the black and looking forward to better days ahead. I put €20m-plus into this resort over the last 18 months, which represented a huge bet on the future. And so far, it seems to be paying off.

"Yet people forget easily. My feeling is that golf is coming back, but very, very slowly. That's why it's so important for us to have our presence heightened in public awareness by the Irish Open. So far, the media coverage has been phenomenal which, from a publicity standpoint, helps justify the cost."

"Without sponsors, you're not going to develop new tournaments, which I believe should happen," he continues. "Sponsorship is coming back. Very slowly, but it's coming back. We're seeing it in the 380 people who are currently dining in the corporate area. Two years ago, you would have been doing well to have as many as 40 or 50, whereas Smurfit-Kappa for instance, will have a full complement here this weekend. This change of mood will eventually lead to companies becoming heavily involved in golf once more, like the Bank of Ireland sponsoring Paul Dunne. Incidentally, he's not a big guy, you know, but Dunne hits the ball a mile."

How could he talk of developing new tournaments, when we had just about managed to turn the existing one around? "Marketing is the key," he replies. "We had only one tournament when Smurfits came in with the European Open. I would like to see that happening again, with the launch of a similar event which I believe we could sustain. You need to get a multinational to support it, but look at the number of multinational companies we now have in this country."

By way of emphasis, he says: "I would be confident that the money for a second tournament will be there within the next five years. Remember that there are companies which didn't experience any recession. Look at the number of IT companies who could be expected to support a tournament here, the same way as they support events in the US.

"There's no reason why their presence overseas, which is becoming more and more important to them, shouldn't be involved in promoting golf. It's there waiting to happen. What we need is the necessary dynamism."

The launch of the European Open 21 years ago, reminded him of a charming story involving Seve Ballesteros, who came to The K Club on that occasion directly from a marvellous Ryder Cup triumph at Oak Hill. "I loved Seve, who could be very mischievous," says Dr Smurfit.

He explained: "During a barbeque we held on the Saturday night, Seve called me aside and started telling me about certain holes which he felt needed to be improved. With that, I put a phone call through to Arnold Palmer in the US. When Arnold came on the line, I handed the phone to Seve and told him 'Now, you can tell Mr Palmer what you would like to see done with his golf course.'

'No, no,' said Seve. 'Everything is fine.' With that, he handed the phone back to me like a red-hot poker. He didn't expect me to be as mischievous as he was. It was very funny."

But there were other things, not so funny. "A great sadness for me is that I can no longer play golf because of back injuries. I've always loved the game and would play any time I could. I was able to play the Palmer Course, however, for only the first few years, and I've never been able to play the Smurfit Course, which I'd love to have done. So I walk around here with mixed emotions.

"I approached the development of this place in the same way as I approached business: I wanted to achieve something worthwhile. This is my legacy, something that I would like to imagine being here many years after I'm gone. When I saw the crowds on pro-am day and how lovely the place looked with the sun beating down, the feel-good factor was tremendous. And I felt even better when Paul McGinley told me that we now have a better course than it was for the Ryder Cup. Which reflects great on Gerry (Byrne) and his team."

He then rose, conscious of Rory's call. And he was soon heading for the first tee on the Palmer Course in which he has made such an investment, emotionally and financially, over the last quarter-century.

And you felt he was entitled to be pleased about it.

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