The helicopter was waiting. So when the New York City investment banker stepped out of the clubhouse at Ireland's Waterville Golf Club one day last year and saw it idling there, he did what any self-respecting New York City investment banker would do. He climbed in and said, "Take me to my hotel." Straight up they went, out over the ocean, banking around the 18th green and setting down in front of the Waterville House.
Total air time: about 60 seconds. Driving to the hotel would have taken, oh, about seven minutes, says Marty Carr, the Dublin tour operator whose company did the flying. "But this fellow's feeling was, 'Have chopper, will travel.'" It's no secret that the tourism business has been hurting, the direct result of terrorism and a deep economic slump. But among the rich and powerful, the urge to get out and tee it up is strong as ever.
And not to rub it in, but they're doing it luxuriously and in more comfort than ever before. Get a load of a typical four-day trip organized by Carr's firm: Guests take off from New York on an evening flight, arriving at Ireland's Shannon Airport at around 7 a.m. After checking in at Dromoland Castle, a 16th-century hotel where the likes of Brad Pitt and Mel Gibson stay, they pile into a $1.9 million EC130 helicopter at 10:30 for an 11 a.m. tee time.
They can choose either the Lahinch Golf Club, laid out in 1894 by Old Tom Morris, or the Doonbeg Golf Club, designed in 2001 by Greg Norman. (Either would be an hour and 15 minutes' drive. The trip takes about 12 minutes by chopper.) They play 18 holes and head back to Dromoland for an early bed or, if they're up for it, maybe squeeze in nine holes at Dromoland's course.
Next day: "Breakfast at 7, wheels up at 8," says Carr. "We're off to Ballybunion," a 25-minute helicopter ride that would take two hours and a well-timed ferry ride by car. After a morning round at Ireland's most celebrated 18, the Old Course, it's back into the six-seat helicopter for a 12- to 15-minute ride to Tralee Golf Club, an Arnold Palmer design that runs along the rugged Barrow Peninsula. Then it's a 15-minute flight to Killarney, where they'll stay at the Killeen House, a cozy hotel with a lively pub and sensational views of the Killar- Bigwigs looking for privacy in Scotland tend to gravitate toward Skibo Castle. Skibo Castle's memberships cost about $5,700 a year.
The next morning they make a 40-minute trip over to Old Head, an extraordinary six-year-old course built on a strip of sandstone that extends more than two miles out into the ocean. "This is one where you really get the benefit of being in the air," says Carr. "It's a spectacular place to fly into." In the afternoon they're off on a 40-minute ride to Waterville, which Raymond Floyd ranked among his top five courses in the world.
For their final night in Ireland, guests will typically stay at Waterville's Butler Arms Hotel, famous for its singalong bar and its ocean views. Then they'll hop by helicopter over to Shannon Airport for the trip back home. The cost for golf, local transportation, caddies and accommodations comes to roughly $5,000 a person. If you prefer to rent the helicopter a la carte, as opposed to part of a package like this one, the fee is a little more than $1,800 per hour in the air. A round-trip business-class flight from New York to Shannon costs about $5,000.
One guy everyone keeps running into on these trips is entrepreneur H. Wayne Huizenga, the Miami Dolphins owner who built the Floridian Golf & Yacht Club, where he and his wife are the only members. "He's the lead dog," says Buddy Darby, whose firm developed Doonbeg. "That's his little schtick. He's over there practically once a week." Huizenga is such a fan he was an early investor in Marty Carr's Links Helicopters Ltd.
Other celebrities known to have spent a good deal of time on Irish golf courses lately: Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hugh Grant, Dan Marino, Jack Nicholson, Neil Young, Bill Clinton and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth.
Not all of them are in a big rush to play as much golf as possible. Ueberroth, who heads the group that owns Pebble Beach Company, made the trip with friends a couple of years ago, staying at Dromoland Castle and Butler Arms and playing Ballybunion, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush, among other courses. "Quaint and terrific" is how he describes it.
Along the way he bumped into other famous faces, including "a couple of Hall of Fame baseball players I'd inducted," he says, choosing not to drop names. His group didn't go the helicopter route, though. Not trying to cram in 36 holes a day, he took "the narrow roads, driving on the wrong side; it was all part of the experience." (Ueberroth isn't a total stranger to the heli-golfing world. A couple of years ago he choppered into Kauri Cliffs, the sensational seaside New Zealand resort developed by former hedge-fund manager Julian Robertson. "That was a great trip," he says. "And you can't really get there by car.")
Tiger Woods has made a habit of traveling to Ireland for a few days of rest and relaxation with his buddies before or after the British Open. His lodging of choice has been the K Club. Set on 550 acres outside of Dublin, the K Club features 95 rooms (starting rate: $510 a night), clay shooting, fishing and a pair of golf courses, including an Arnold Palmer design that will be the site of the 2006 Ryder Cup. A former walled estate, the K Club is exceptionally private -- a big plus for movers and shakers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, both of whom were spotted pulling trolleys there in recent years.
Clinton likes the K Club so much he considered buying a townhouse there last summer, but decided against it. Bigwigs looking for privacy in Scotland tend to gravitate toward Skibo Castle, the former Andrew Carnegie estate on 7,500 acres in the Highlands. The 21-bedroom castle is part of the private Carnegie Club (memberships go for about $5,700 a year), but nonmembers are allowed one visit -- at room rates of $1,400 a night, double occupancy -- to decide whether they want to join. The area's best golf is at Royal Dornoch, just a few miles down the road, though the Carnegie Club has a very respectable links of its own.
One of Skibo's nightly rituals is a big "family style" dinner, with the guests gathering in founder Andrew Carnegie's candlelit dining room. "It's like going to a house party, with all these wonderful characters," says one recent visitor. "They don't sit you with your partner, so you're always meeting new people. Everybody's somebody, so it's not that big of a deal." Among the guests on her trip was -- who else? -- Wayne Huizenga. Ashley Judd is said to be a member (like Madonna, she was married there), as is Greg Norman. The club itself declines to comment.
If the thought of sharing a castle with 20 strangers is somehow just too hard to bear, you could always rent an entire house on your own. That's how they do it at "smaller castles" such as Myres, a 16th-century home near St. Andrews that has been turned into a very highend inn. Al Gore and "a senior American businessman" stayed at Myres not long ago, as did several different groups of "pop stars who asked to remain anonymous," says Nick White, director. The cost to rent the castle's nine public rooms is $5,700 per night.
The local golf courses are among the very best in the game, including Carnoustie, Gleneagles, Kingsbarns and the Old Course at St. Andrews. The latter is 20 miles up route A91 from Myres Castle. That should take you, oh, about 30 minutes by car. Unless you'd prefer to take a chopper.
By Peter Finch