By Brian Keogh
I messed up before I even got started.
“Tom, I’m going to be a bit late,” I whine down the line, doing away with another part of the ozone layer as I screech away from the umpteenth tollbooth on the Florida Turnpike in a blue cloud.
“I’m on the turnpike. Reckon I’ll be there within the hour.”
“What the hell are you doing on the turnpike?” replies the man who had e-mailed me idiot-proof directions from Doral Country Club in Miami to his home in West Palm Beach. Needless to say, they didn’t include the turnpike.
The 90-mile trip from Doral to Frenchman’s Creek, a high end community in Palm Beach Gardens, should have been an easy cruise down I-95.
I’d made it difficult.
When I got there, two hours late, I discovered that security at Frenchman's Creek is tighter than Fort Knox. Armed guards wearing more gold braid than Baron Munchausen, check your name on the list, hand you a slip of paper with directions to the resident you are visiting and wave you on your way.
Security details, complete with carts featuring infra-red thermal imaging and GPS tracking systems for night patrols, cruise leafy streets with names like Rivoli Drive, Monet Drive, Limoges Lane and Le Mans Way.
Homes here must cost big bucks, I muse. Millions. Maybe tens of millions. I’ve come to talk to Thomas F Kane, businessman and US Marine Corps pilot, about Adare Manor and the Irish Open, a tournament he’s determined to pluck from its current mediocre status to the higher echelons of the European Tour.
This should be mission accomplished for Citizen Kane and his formidable wife Judy, the owners of a country manor they bought unseen for IR£2 million in 1987.
While there were hiccups along the way, the Kanes have transformed Adare Manor from a empty shell into one of Europe’s top five star resorts, complete with a stunning Robert Trent Jones Snr golf course that will play host to the top players in Europe from May 17-20.
Brooklyn-born Kane is a formidable guy. Not only has he beaten cancer three times and made a lot of money as a bond trader on Wall Street, he is also a highly decorated Vietnam veteran with 63 combat missions to his credit. The Marine Corps flag flies proudly outside Adare Manor.
But that’s not all. He is also chairman of the board of Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization that provides health care to children with cleft palates in developing countries and member of the board of trustees of the famous Lahey Clinic, a non-profit teaching hospital in Boston that once described him as “a humble person” with “valuable financial expertise.”
Now an Irish citizen on his second passport (his grandmother hailed from Roundstone in Co Galway), Kane doesn’t much care to elaborate on his career in the military, though he is immensely proud of the men and women who are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s new “Greatest Generation” as he likes to call them, borrowing the title of Tom Brocaw's book on the veterans of World Ward II.
So what did you do in the war Tom?
“Drop bombs. Helicopter escorts. I flew jets. Shooting cannons. Stuff. Protecting helicopters and guys on the ground,” he says of those far flung days when he flew A4 Skyhawks for the US Marine Corps. Best days of his life. Camaraderie.
He’s not a flier now, though he did get a chance to take his old plane for a spin in Arizona few years ago. Tootling around in civilian aircraft for fun doesn’t appeal to him.
“You learn a tremendous respect when you fly in the military,” he says. “First of all they are fast planes. So if you are going seven miles a minute, to go and bore holes at two miles a minute you really don't get your rocks off.”
We’re a long way from Vietnam on a scorching hot Florida afternoon in March. Grandchildren are splashing in the pool and golfers are swishing away on the golf course just over the railing at the end of the garden.
Kane, though, is still recovering from he likes to call “plumbing” - a prostectomy for prostate cancer that saw him check himself out of a Boston hospital after a four-day stay just a few weeks before I arrive.
“I had my left kidney taken out seven years ago so I am a three-time cancer survivor because I had skin cancer first of all,” he explains nonchalantly. “That’s like jay-walking for me now. All I’m trying to do now is get back on my feet and get this Irish Open moving. Hospitals are for sick people so I got the hell out of there.
“I feel good now and my voice hasn’t gone up an octave, so that is a good sign. We have an expression in the military: Any landing you walk away from is a good one.”
With three new sponsors ready to add almost €1 million to the Irish Open pot, Kane hopes to boost in the prize fund from €2.5 to over €3 million.
"Proud Partners" Fáilte Ireland, McInerney, Roadbridge and Pallas Foods have already agreed to pay €300,000 each with Audi Ireland, Limerick County Council, Rolex and Shannon Development all stumping up another €150,000 apiece.
But Kane reckons he can get another €900,000 and if the fans get behind the event, he sees no reason why the prize fund can’t reach €3 million this year.
He said: “The swing in behind the programme has been very gratifying. Nobody has said, ‘Hey you’re crazy.’
“I started out looking for sponsorship at €600,000 apiece and the dog didn’t hunt. I had a couple of people at that level but I wasn’t broadening the appeal. So we reduced it to €300,000 to broaden the base out, which was part of the objective.
“I have been excited with the reaction and I have another three sponsors at that €300,000 level that are interested in coming on board this year.
“Once we have covered the costs of staging the event, the rest of the money goes into the tournament. There is no promoter here and this is not a profit making enterprise.
“If we can bring the expenses down under €2 million, the rest of the money goes into the prize fund. We have got to get the prize fund up and I would like to bump it past €2.5 million this year to €3 million.
“We have taken the ticket prices down to €25 which means we are clearing €20 after VAT. If we can 50,000 fans at €20 nett that’s €1 million for the prize fund. If we can get 80,000 people that’s €1.6 million. So the gate can have a huge influence on the prize fund.
“There is free parking and the kids get in free. So we want to drive this from the bottom and get people and families through the gate.
“I don’t know when the tour has to fix the prize fund number. But let’s say that through ticket pre-sales, we are going to get €1.5 million on top of the sponsorship money.
“All of a sudden we are going to be bringing in €4.5 million or €4.8 million and they may take the prize fund to €3 million. We absolutely refuse to pay appearance money. We are working on the prize fund and improving the prestige of the tournament, starting with dropping the named sponsor from the title and build it up over a number of years.”
Attracting the top players to Adare Manor will not be easy but Kane has three years to get this right and plans to announce what he describes as “a couple of little enhancements that are going to add a little sex and violence to it.”
Top of the list is a cool €1 million bonus for the winner of the Irish Open, if he also wins the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth the following week.
Sponsors McInerney are putting up a house in Portugal for a hole-in-one on the 16th and Audi is putting a car for an ace on one of the other par threes.
“We are taking a long term view to the Irish Open and we still have three more sponsors names to announce at that level and then effectively now because of our sponsors coming in at the €150,000 level, that is basically the cost of a pro-am team.”
Don’t get Kane started on Ireland’s secretary managers though. He’s bittery disappointed with the response to the Irish Open Pro-Am, which offers club golfers the chance to play alongside one of Europe’s top professionals for an outlay of just €2.
“I've been disappointed with the response to the amateur teams for the pro-am. All it proves to me is that these secretary managers don't do their job.
“There were some clubs fairly close by and fairly distant that did not put the posters up and did not alert their members that for two quid they can have a team in the Irish Open.
“I personally think that half those club secretaries should be fired. Club secretaries have nothing else to do with their life except put up posters. If there was a competition going on in Munster and it wasn’t posted in all the clubs, there would be hell to pay.
“When you have a chance to play in a pro-am with a value of over €100,000 for just €2 and your club secretary doesn't put a poster up, I'd be looking for a new club secretary.”
Sandwiched between the Players Championship on the PGA Tour and the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, the Irish Open would appear to be in a difficult slot in the calendar.
But the Kanes firmly believe that people will get behind the event and join in the party with a music festival planned for the local pubs as well as a race night at Limerick racecourse, a Brown Thomas fashion show for player’s wives and a Ladies Day on Thursday.
But why did Kane take on a lame duck like the Irish Open in the first place, essentially underwriting the estimated €4.5 million cost of the tournament for three years?
“There are some altruistic reasons to it,” he confesses. “But Judy and I have been working on this since 1998. We had meetings with the tour but the stars weren't lined up. We felt for some time that the Irish Open should be the Irish Open. This is not made to take anything away from some of the previous sponsors. That is the way the thing was structured at the time.
“We felt there was another way to do it and take a bigger risk and in the end we took the risk. I don't think this could have been done five years ago.
“For the same reason that Munster won the Superbowl last year and Croke Park had a highly emotional event a couple of weeks ago with the British- Ireland game. It was a transitional moment and it appeals to the Irish sense of patriotism.
“It is something we take for granted here in the States and it needs to come out more and more and I think that this is a way of doing it. I know that we have hit a chord with our Proud Partners. I know we have because I have spoken to them. This is a chance to take the national event, post Ryder Cup, and say we are going to make something out of this.
“Look at what JP (McManus) managed to do every five years for charity. He set a high watermark there. But it is an example of how you run a major event like that. This is an annual event. This is the national championship and under the terms of the agreement which we have with Tour, this doesn't have to leave Adare, in fact it can't leave Adare unless we wave it off.”
Kane has come a long way from the days when he played stickball in Brooklyn. Neil Diamond lived just a flew blocks away from his home. Barbra Streisand lived down the other way.
The Brooklyn Dodger still played at Ebbetts Field, though their departure for Los Angeles in 1957 broke Kane's heart and ended his serious interest in that sport forever more. He loves soccer now, and rugby too. But it is golf that occupies his thoughts these days and he has high hopes for an Irish Open that could go down as one of the most interesting in recent years.
The Kanes have a long association with Ireland that goes back to the mid-1980s when they owned a tenth of Dromoland Castle in Clare and two of the 81 units in Ashford Castle at Cong in Co Mayo.
After returning from Vietnam, he joined stock brokers Salomon Brothers before setting up a brokerage called Printon Kane & Co in New York in 1972 and then relocating the business to New Jersey in 1973. Then came Ireland.
“Starting in 1985 and were one of the syndicate of investors in Dromoland Castle and Adare seemed like the next logical extension except we didn't have any partners.
“We didn't know if we were going to syndicate the deal out or what the story was. We never signed a management agreement and ended up doing it ourselves over the years. We have partners now but the family still owns 80 percent. We have some of the best partners in the world. Dermot Desmond is a minority partner and has been for over ten years.”
Having acquired Adare Manor in 1987, the resort was not immune to the recession of the early 1990s and the first Gulf War, when few Americans travelled outside the US.
Funds ran out and the Trent Jones golf course was left unfinished.
“There’s no magic to that,” Kane says. “And then friends and partners showed up and we got it under way. And we opened up on August 20, 1995.
“People came in when things got tough back in the mid 90s, when we were trying to finish the golf course, I guess. They came in in a passive way, friends have been there for us during that period of time. Those who wanted to get out we let get out.
“We were probably a couple of million bucks short at the time, which is not a lot of money in retrospect. But it is when you haven’t got it.
“We did the music festival in 1991, 1992 and some of the funds that went into that might have gone into the golf course. And I have no regrets about that. It is the best positioning we ever did for Adare and people still talk about it. The only sore point I had there was that the Arts Council never gave us any money. They never gave us a dime for three years. Not that I have a long memory.
“Which brings us full circle. And that's why I think the stars are in line for the Irish Open. What are partners are willing to do with us, where Adare and the Manor is positioned, the state of the Irish Open, the deal we did with the tour, it is all aligned now and I think over the next three years will get it spun around. Particularly with the likes of Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley, who have been big supporters.
“Monty (Colin Montgomerie) is really excited about it and people are genuinely looking forward to coming to Adare Manor because of JP's charity deal in 2000 and 2005.
“There are some obvious slots in the sponsorship line up that haven’t been filled. There is no bank or insurance company, no communications company. So maybe they want to see what the story is first.
“What I am saying there is some fatigue on the part of sponsors and that will wear off by the time next year comes around, we will have a package to offer.
“What we are trying to do is orchestrate and lead the pack with our friends. They are getting a corporate membership. They are getting an outing. Adare Manor Resort is in the entertainment business. But we are also building relationships and it is good business.”
And with that I was plied with coffee and chocolate cake and sent on my way, down I-95, as ordered.