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Like countless business executives, Jay Kennedy belongs to a golf club where the fairways are rolling and the scenery is drop-dead gorgeous. One other fact about Kennedy's dreamy club: It's in Ireland.
The insurance executive from Chatham, N.J., joined Ballyliffin Golf Club in northwest Ireland in 2001 after his wife placed a $600 winning bid on a two-year membership at a charity auction. Kennedy then paid an additional $4,400 to become a lifetime member (the fee has since climbed to $7,500). He has made several trips in two years, once playing Ballyliffin's two courses with 24 friends and business associates. "Socially, it's a fabulous investment," he says. "I was going to Ireland a couple times a year anyway."
Looking to expand your golf horizons? If your budget is ample and your enthusiasm for overseas travel is undimmed by world events, try joining a club in Ireland or Scotland. Amenities -- from course layout to on-site hotels -- vary widely. Financial terms are all over the map, too. Lifetime membership at some clubs can be had for less than $10,000, while others require close to three times that but will return the money when you resign or die.
Member demographics is another key factor. Some clubs that market to Americans are century-old facilities where a majority of members are locals. They began wooing foreigners to finance capital improvements. Ballybunion Golf Club in Ireland, favored by ex-President Bill Clinton, used proceeds from its international program to pay for a seawall to protect three holes. At newer clubs such as Ireland's Doonbeg Golf Club, the mix favors foreigners by design. About 80% of golfers at Doonbeg, which opened in 2002, live outside Ireland, mainly in the U.S. and Canada. That means the course isn't heavily played. It also means the gent who joins you for a pint after the round isn't as likely to speak with an Irish brogue.
One thing these clubs offer: a sanctuary in which golfers feel close to the origins of their beloved sport. "They have a sense of connection to the game in Scotland and Ireland. They're a part of a golfing experience," says Gordon Dalgleish, president of PerryGolf, a golf travel agency that books trips to courses in Britain.
That experience seemed less attractive to some jittery about overseas travel after September 11 and, more recently, the war in Iraq. Fees even have come down as some clubs strain to attract international members, though business has picked up since the conflict in Iraq began winding down. "There has been a spike in the last month," says Doug Hart, U.S. membership director for Doonbeg. A member-guest tournament involving about 170 players in June sold out and so has another one scheduled for October, he says.
Should you decide to go for it, you'll want to visit several golf clubs before making a commitment. Your biggest challenge after that will be finding time to fly away with your clubs to Europe.
By Mark Hyman