KILDARE, IRELAND - The "K-Club" opened for play ten years ago, in 1991.
It was the brainchild of Irish businessman, Dr. Michael Smurfit, a multi-millionaire in the packaging and print industries, and an extremely well known personality on the Irish social scene.
It is based on the same idea that proved so successful for its great rival down in Co. Kilkenny, the marvellous Mount Juliet. A golf course of the highest calibre, surrounded by a hotel/resort facility for top people, which would be the rival of anything of its kind in the world.
The fact that the K-Club now boasts a five star rating in the prestigious Automobile Association listings, the first Irish hotel ever to achieve this, tells us that Dr. Smurfit has more than succeeded in his ambitions. (Not that he is a man used to any kind of failure) .
The main advantage that the K-Club has over Mt. Juliet is that it is located only half an hour's drive from Dublin city centre, just off the main Dublin to Galway road in the tiny Co. Kildare village of Straffan, and is far more accessible to visitors. But there is little difference between the two of them as far as the golf or facilities are concerned.
If you have not already heard of the K-Club then you very soon will, as it has been chosen as the venue for the 2005 Ryder Cup match between the USA and Europe (this year it returns to its old home at "The Belfry" in England). To have won the right to host this event is a feather in the cap for not only Dr. Smurfit, but for the whole of Ireland.
The K-Club is golf-orientated opulence and unadulterated luxury at its very best. The centrepiece of the complex is the ancient Straffan House, the origins of which can be traced back as far as the 6th century, and which has now been converted into the main hotel. This is a huge building of amazing grace and elegance, and must now be considered one of the top hotels of the world.
Other facilities include state of the art tennis courts and archery ranges, and you can also indulge in a spot of croquet, swimming, or horse riding if these take your fancy.
The hotel is surrounded by the golf course itself, which is set in a 330-acre country estate of magnificent charm and beauty.
The building is bordered by one ambling mile of the River Liffey, which has some of the best fishing facilities the country has to offer, and which has also been cleverly incorporated into the design of the golf course, coming into play on many of the holes.
New artificial lakes have been created (not that you would ever guess they were man made) which are kept stocked to the gills with salmon, trout, pike, and every sort of fresh water fish imaginable, to ensure that visitors always return with a catch.
Co. Kildare is famous throughout the world as a centre of excellence for breeding thoroughbred racehorses. The acclaimed Curragh racecourse and The National Stud are literally just down the road.
There is a new, modern clubhouse for the use of members and visitors to the golf club. This is five star in its own right, and has every possible facility imaginable. Here you can dine in a simple and not too expensive snack bar, or splash out on a gourmet dinner in its fantastic restaurant.
I took my wife to Sunday lunch here for our wedding anniversary last September, and had cause to complain that the chicken she ordered was slightly underdone. Not only was the dish replaced immediately and without question, but when the (very large) bill finally arrived, it had not even been charged for. This is what I call CLASS, with a capital "C".
Dr. Smurfit engaged one of golf's greats to design his golf course, the legendary American Arnold Palmer.
What he paid the legendary "Arnie" for this can only be guessed at, but since Palmer is a multi-millionaire in his own right, it is obvious that many millions of pounds changed hands.
It goes without saying that the course is in immaculate condition at all times. When money is no object, then what can be achieved is virtually without limit, and Dr. Smurfit has created a masterpiece of concept and design that is almost without equal (I say almost, because I personally believe Mt. Juliet to be at least its equal in every respect) .
Allow me to give you just one example of this.
In its opening year of 1991, the club hosted the Irish PGA Championship, for home born Irish professionals. The week of play was a particularly wet one, even by Irish standards, (we have lots of "liquid sunshine" in these parts) and the course very quickly became waterlogged to such an extent that Wellington boots were more the order of the day rather than golf shoes.
Much was made of this in the Irish media, and heavy criticism was fired at the club in regard to the poor drainage.
Michael Smurfit's response; simply close the course down again and bring in the top men in the field until he was 100% sure the same thing could never happen again.
The K-Club has played host to many top European tournaments, such as the Irish Open and the European Open, the richest event on the European Tour after the British Open itself.
Every hole is a "feature" hole on this golf course, but four holes stand out in particular in my own memory.
The first of these is the par-five seventh. This is a majestic golf hole measuring a whopping 608 yards of the championship tees. It calls for pin- point accuracy with the drive, which must be threaded through, round and over a series of strategically placed bunkers. If this is achieved without mishap, then ordinary mortals are left with a fairly straightforward second shot with either a long iron or fairway wood, to just short of the River Liffey, which protects the front of the green. On the right is a small lake, and on the left, heavy woodland. Long hitters have the added dilemma of whether or not to try for the green in two shots, and thus set up a possible eagle or birdie opportunity.
The eighth, is another gem. It is a short par-four of only 380 yards, but the river runs all the way along the left hand edge of the fairway, and comes into play again for the pitch to the small green, which is contoured to feed your ball towards the water.
I usually play this for a safe par, taking a two iron down the right for the tee shot, and hitting my pitch into the back right hand corner of the green. All that is left then is a tricky downhill putt of around 30 feet, which could still very easily end up in the river if it is hit with too much vigour.
The last two holes of the course are designed almost with a cliff-hanging finish in mind.
The seventeenth is a par-three of 185 yards, surrounded by water on three sides, and requiring a fairly long iron to get up. Many a double bogey and worse has been scored on this piece of "devilment". In the four times I have played the course to date, I have only made par once, and that was with a very good chip and run from the small bank on the left. The trick here is to stay dry, and to get the golf ball "on the lawn" (the putting surface) by whatever method you can.
There is no doubt that the eighteenth is a hole that is going to be the scene of much high drama when the Ryder Cup is played at the K-Club in 2005. A par-five of 520 yards, it is with the second shot that the real problem lies. Provided the good player can find the fairway with his drive, the large green is easily within reach. The problem is again, water. There is an enormous lake to the front and left of the green, which again feeds the ball towards the water. This is a hole only for those with nerves of steel, and will truly sort out the men from the boys in Ryder Cup week, or indeed at any other time.
The K-Club is not cheap.
In fact, the green fee has just increased to £175 Irish Punts per round! That's as much as some golfers pay for their annual subscription. I would suspect that this will only increase in the future, such is the stature that the club is now achieving. It is accessible, however, and a phone call will secure you a tee-time on most days. Full facilities are available, with outstanding practice areas and putting greens, and caddies and carts for hire (Caddies - £25 per round).
If you fancy a round on this Rolls Royce of golf courses, then you better make it before 2003. It is Michael Smurfit's intention to close the course for play for two years to further upgrade it and prepare it for the Ryder Cup in 2005. Indeed, Arnold Palmer is a regular visitor, as he advises on the proposed changes, and also on the brand new second eighteen that is currently being built.
I will leave the last word to Arnie himself, the courses architect and creator. Standing on the balcony of his hotel room one evening, he was asked by Dr. Michael Smurfit if there was anything they had overlooked that could be done to improve the course. He replied, "We could draw and plan for 100 years and still not come up with as good a vision".
That, for me, sums up the K-Club.
Phone: +353 1 6017300.
Professional Paul McGinley (tour professional)
Particulars 18-hole Parkland, Par 72, Yards 7,171
Visitors Welcome Monday, Tuesday and Friday
Opening Hours 08.00-22.00 Summer
Green fees: £175
Extras Golf Club Hire by arrangement
Caddy service by arrangement (£25 per round)
Tuition by arrangement
Restaurant: 11.00 - 21.00
Dress Code: Formal