Day One of my Irish golf trip meant flying into Dublin this year, so with jet lag still foggin my noggin, I stopped into see one of the golf world's special people.
Forty-five minutes south of the capital, between Arklow and Wicklow, along Brittas Bay, I slow down off the busy N11 and wait to see the familiar yellow exterior of my trusty landmark, Jack White's Lounge & Restaurant (try the salmon and prawn salad), where I turn left and head down a narrow beach road to The European Club, designed, built and owned by Irish golf's
irrepressible iconoclast, Pat Ruddy.
For virtually all of Ruddy's life he has been happily consumed by golf. He would skip school in tiny Ballymote, County Sligo, in rural northwest Ireland, to go play an afternoon round with his dad, who died when Ruddy was in his 20s. Ruddy became a freelance golf writer, working for papers from Dublin to Sydney, then promoted occasional events like long-drive contests on airport runways, before earning a considerable reputation designing or restoring some 30 courses in Ireland. Clever and forever optimistic, Ruddy provided for his wife, Bernardine, and five children, but was never rich in material things.
He did, however, save money because unlike so many, he knew from an early age exactly what he wanted in life. So one day in the mid-eighties he rented a helicopter to fly over the east coast of Ireland in search
of the country's last remaining linksland, that dune-filled sandy strip of coastal real estate that "links" the ocean to more fertile inland farms, rumpled land that is usually only good for some mild grazing, windy picnics and the world's finest golf courses. An estimated 246 genuine links exist in the world, and green Ireland has 55 of them.
Ruddy found a modest patch overlooking the Irish Sea, quietly negotiated with the farmer for over two years, then cashed-out insurance policies, took out a second mortgage and depleted his life's savings to buy the
land. With his son, Gerald, he spent the next five years building a golf course by hand -- driving the backhoes and front-loaders, laying irrigation pipe, literally building 90 percent of the golf course by themselves.
With his typical whimsy and international view of things, Ruddy named the place, The European Club, but kept it simple -- no faux elegance, no swarm of bag boys, no elaborate dining -- and characteristically eccentric.
He added two reserve holes – "20 holes sounds sort of metric, sort of European," he says with a wink -- and created perhaps the world's longest green, at 127 yards. (He and Tiger once had a closest to the pin putting contest from its farthest edge.)
Lovely and unassuming, the clubopened in 1992 and soon became a local favorite. But Ruddy constantly tinkered, tweaking every gorse bush and menu item until it rang true. By the late Nineties, The European Club was being mentioned in the same breath with Ireland’s world-famous courses -- Ballybunion, Royal Portrush, Royal County Down, Portmarnock. Johnnie Miller and Nick Faldo dropped by to play and pronounced it sublime.
"I'd love to see a British Open held here," said Miller.
Tiger helicoptered in one morning, shot a course record 67 and declared his love for Ruddy's homemade masterpiece. Suddenly, in the new millennium, the world noticed, and miraculously golf's most influential critics were calling The European Club one of the top 100 courses on the planet, and three of its holes were selected among the finest 500 holes in all the world.
Literally from the moment you pull into the car park you notice the owner's personal touch. There are so many pine trees, palms (yes, in Ireland) and thick ferns, you'd be excused for thinking you pulled into a snazzy Northern California spot, but it's just Ruddy's way of creating both a welcome wind block for his honored guests and a little drama by hiding even the slightest glimpse of the course until you walk onto the first tee.
One of his fair-skinned daughters, Sidon, a big Jane Austen fan, greets me at the pro shop, and within moments Ruddy rides up in his golf cart. He is a pear-shaped fellow who is proud of the two stones (about 28 pounds) he has lost recently, dapper in a professorial way in his standard cardigan sweater, tie and wide-brimmed hat. Ruddy once studied to be a Catholic
priest, adores America’s little blue highways, is predisposed to find the best in everyone, can be cunning, and loathes the self-important golf snob.
"When Mr. Important comes," says Ruddy, "and the driver asks, 'What do we do with the clubs?' I always like to say, 'Well, we certainly aren't coming out to get them.'"
He has no quarrel with clubs that offer shoe shines and pro shops that double as men's clothing stores, but he knew that wasn't for him. "We also have no TV here," he says proudly. "We want this to be place of conversation. TV kills conversation. And we have great apple tarts. I must have auditioned a hundred of them before finding just the right one."
Ruddy profusely apologizes, but he must supervise the delivery of 30 plumply-upholstered leather chairs for the dining room, once again carefully chosen not for their opulence but because the owner has an artificial hip and these just feel better. "I am constantly tweaking," he says, delighted with the new purchase. "I'm like a little kid. I like all things new."
Having done this drop-in on Ruddy several times before, I swore to myself this trip I would try to simply have a normal lunch and not be "the reporter," but that ruse lasted about two minutes. He is just too quotable for his own good. A group of American golfers wanders into the dining room for some drinks, and Ruddy's eyes are lasered to their heads, which are adorned with baseball caps and Aussie outback hats.
He catches his head waiter's attention and silently orders that only their hats, not their heads, should be removed.
"There aren't many things that piss me off," he says without rancor, "but I've been to Augusta, Merion, Shinnecock, and I don't see people in their dining rooms wearing hats. If people live in caves, I don't mind them acting like cavemen. But if they live in palaces, they shouldn’t act like they live in caves."
Of the estimated 20 Irish golf resorts that are badly in debt or already bankrupt, Ruddy says, "Golf in Ireland was always a sport. Then it became a tourism and business enterprise. And they always had to open on the first day with total grandeur. They couldn't do like me and slowly work your way up as you can afford it. I know it's heresy, and I don't wish misfortune on
anyone, but we'll live without them. If no one played golf, the world would go on. It's not war."
The European Club, as one might expect, is masterfully engineered, with each bunker, sight line and patch of native rough so carefully placed -- often after three or four tries -- that they seem effortlessly natural, never contrived or simply stitched onto the land as an afterthought.
Ruddy's infamous bunkers are quite controversial because they're lined with wooden planks, or "sleepers," as railroad ties are known over there. In my first few rounds years ago, I never seemed to find them, so I remained above the fray with an "each unto his own" aloofness. But now that I've experienced the torment of watching an errant shot get unnecessarily launched into oblivion, I will say they seem excessively punitive.
Yet because golfers know there's not a cruel bone in Ruddy's body, they tolerate his playfulness and, yes, learn to avoid bunkers at all costs. If you want an endorsement of the course's relentless challenge and invigorating assortment of holes, know that Padraig Harrington practiced here for several days before his two British Open victories.
Ruddy is often the first to arrive at the club and the last to leave, and he still greets visitors at the clubhouse door, sometimes mistakenly getting tipped by oblivious high-rollers. The Ruddys have a permanent home in south Dublin, but they also have stunning quarters on the top floor of the clubhouse, including a golf library that Ruddy says contains 5,000 volumes, one of which cost him $35,000.
That would have been an unthinkable extravagance for Ruddy 30 years ago, but he spends virtually nothing on advertising, was debt-free within seven years of opening and says he has resisted a dozen offers to buy his club, the latest reportedly around $40 million.
"So what?" Ruddy scoffs. "What would I do with it? I can't sleep in ten homes. I can afford $40,000 watches now, but my old Timex works fine. Worldly things can’t be held together. At some point you have to stop planning and accumulating and earning, and simply enjoy.
"My life is golf and family," he says. "This dream has always been about being able to walk out on my own golf course in the early evening and just throw down 50 balls and hit them without anyone saying boo. For a real golfer that is rich beyond your wildest dreams.
"The greatest reward has nothing to do with money. I simply walk out on the dunes, surround myself with family and beat my chest like King Kong. Then I say, 'Done.'"
** Bruce Selcraig lives in Austin and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and Mother Jones, among others. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.