The man who won the Ryder Cup

Michael Smurfit has finally realised his dream of bringing golf's biggest competition to his home course - Dublin's spectacular K Club. David McKittrick reports on how the cardboard king of Ireland landed a hole-in-one
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Whoever holds golf's Ryder Cup aloft in victory at the K club in Kildare tomorrow, the occasion will represent a dazzling personal triumph for Sir Michael Smurfit, the tycoon who brought the contest to Ireland.

The international event would never have reached Irish shores without his single-minded determination and the investment of millions of euros in what to many looked like a highly quixotic quest. But despite huge odds, the 70-year-old businessman never gave up. "I was told I was barking up the wrong tree," he said. "People have been telling me I can't do this or that all my life, but I continue to do things."

As one of the world's 250 richest people, he possesses the trappings of great wealth, outstanding racehorses, a wonderful yacht, legendary art, a wine cellar to die for, a private jet and fabulous mansions in Monaco and elsewhere. He has got it, and he flaunts it. His financial success is on worldwide display via television coverage, since the first green of his K Club is dominated by his new mega-mansion. An underground swimming lagoon is one of the features of the 26,000sq ft structure, said to be the size of 26 three-bedroom semis.

Sir Michael conceived the K Club where the competition is being held, built it, straightened out early problems, raised it to the Ryder Cup's exacting standards and brought the competition to it.

His capacity to make money and get things done could hardly be more conspicuous. As this weekend demonstrates, ostentation is part of his motivation, yet this Ryder Cup venture is not just a sporting vision but also a financial one.

The Irish government and indeed opposition parties have enthusiastically bought into the proposition that the cup is not just a rich man's whimsy but something that can bring the country lasting benefits.

The hard-headed Irish authorities, who are pouring millions into the project, regard it not as a one-off moment of glory but as a priceless opportunity for nothing less than a rebranding of Ireland's image abroad.

The only two international sporting events which are even larger are the Olympics and the football World Cup. Since these are beyond Ireland's reach, securing the Ryder Cup has been the pinnacle of Irish hopes; it is, in all likelihood, the biggest sporting event Ireland will ever host.

It is envisaged, in the words of the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, as "the pinnacle but not the end". The calculation is that the contest will in its wake bring vast amounts of American golfing dollars to Ireland.

The official estimate is that the contest and its aftermath will generate more than €100m (£67m) from golf fans. First, they will watch it on TV, then later many of them will come to sample the Irish experience for themselves.

The world contains, it is said, more than 50 million golfers, and Ireland wants to entice as many of them as possible. The American market is particularly important, but visitors from the States have been falling off and this is a heaven-sent opportunity to reverse that trend.

Joe Byrne, who heads Tourism Ireland in North America, said: "That the country is hosting a five-star international sporting event sends out the signal that Ireland is a five-star country.

"In the US, there is a perception of Ireland as a beautiful place with friendly people. But among people who haven't travelled to Ireland there may not be the appreciation that Ireland is as sophisticated, high class and cosmopolitan as it actually is."

Sir Michael added: "The return investment for this country is going to be phenomenal. It's going to be worth hundreds of millions of euros, and it'll be year in and year out."

The Ryder Cup is, in other words, partly personal crusade but also an effort to repackage the country with an updated image to reflect its unprecedented prosperity. The irony is that the glitz and the glamour of the cup in Ireland and, indeed of the Smurfit lifestyle, has grown from the singularly mundane commodities of cardboard and paper packaging. The Smurfit fortune is based on the family business which began in a small way in Dublin, making shoeboxes and the like. Michael, born in Lancashire of an English father and Belfast mother, left school at the age of 16 and was dispatched by his father to work in an American paper mill.

On his return, he started a business in England, then persuaded his father that their Irish business was under threat from an impending influx of English companies. "We had to expand out of Ireland," Sir Michael said. "This wasn't because I had a magical idea; it was sheer fear that forced me into that position."

In a way, this process of expansion has simply continued for more than half a century. After countless acquisitions and takeovers, his enterprise is now a global giant, with more than 40,000 employees in 33 countries. Last month Sir Michael said proudly: "We are by far the biggest producer of packing on this planet, double, three times the size of anybody else, with total production of the order of 13, 14 million tons of cardboard."

His business has spread to five continents, pushed on by his legendary drive and a management style which has been described as demanding and abrasive. One senior executive said: "I've seen grown men cry when they've got a tongue-lashing from Michael Smurfit." He himself claims his workers have "a fierce pride, a fierce loyalty" to the firm.

Yet worldwide growth has not been accompanied by any great diversification. The business, which may not be glamorous but is very evidently lucrative, is still centred on paper, cardboard, corrugated packing and paper sacks.

This may be partly due to the fact that, even after 54 years in the packaging business, Sir Michael says he genuinely loves it. "I go into supermarkets regularly and look at the bottom of boxes," he said. "It's a lifelong habit. If I find it's one of ours and I don't like the look of it, I'll contact somebody and give them a bit of hell."

This combination of instinct to expand and preoccupation with detail has helped create a high-speed lifestyle. As he describes it: "I would spend probably three months in Ireland, three months in Monaco and six months on the road. Weekends tend to be normal days for us; I generally use weekends to travel to a far-off place, so it tends to be a seven-day week."

Sir Michael said his empire is "an American company to all intents and purposes; we just happen to be located in Ireland." Holding dual Irish and British citizenship, he received a knighthood last year for his contributions to employment in Britain, and his charitable donations.

Around the K Club itself he is not unpopular. "There's a lot of positives there," said Emmet Stagg, a Labour member of the Irish parliament who lives in a nearby village. "Smurfit is a good employer."

He has sons in the business and is strong on family issues, he said. But he has had two broken marriages, and was one of the first public figures in Ireland to go through a divorce. They broke down for different reasons, he said, but admitted frankly: "I'd say one of the key things was my work habits, because I'm constantly travelling."

There is glamour in the family: a niece is the actress Victoria Smurfit, who has appeared in a string of movies and most notably in the BBC series Ballykissangel. But there has been painful tragedy too.

This year, his nephew Jason, who was 35, died after setting himself on fire in a London churchyard. He had a reputation as a "wild child" who went off the rails after the early death of his father, Sir Michael's brother Jeff.

With convictions for drink-driving and being drunk and disorderly, Jason was often, in Sir Michael's words, "a very unattractive young man". But he also had severe schizophrenia.

Last month, in a rare interview on Irish radio, Sir Michael delivered a form of family epitaph. "I was probably his dad in a sense of the word," he said. "I spent a reasonable amount of time with him. For me, it was a particularly hard thing to come to terms with. When he was of a clear mind he was an engaging, attractive and loving young person. Jason Smurfit was born into wealth and privilege but he was unable to enjoy that life; he is now gone to join his dad."

The industrialist visited the churchyard where his nephew died, met the priest who gave him the last rites, and thanked those who tried to help him.

One irony of the Ryder Cup is that while Sir Michael is passionate about golf and its promotion, he has himself been unable to play since a skiing accident 12 years ago gave him "years of hell".

Having marked his 70th birthday last month by taking friends and family on a splendid Mediterranean cruise, he shows no sign of coasting into retirement. He wants to continue enlarging his empire, expand into four or five new countries, improve his stud farm and pursue various other ventures.

The Ryder Cup is obviously a major landmark in his life, and providing as it does a showcase both for his own good fortune and that of Ireland. But it will be a pinnacle, by no means an end.

The Smurfit story is based on a restless hunt for fresh challenges. As he sums up the approach which has kept him constantly on he move for more than half a century: "I always look over my shoulder and say, who's the next Michael Smurfit out there?"

The 16-year-old school leaver who made it big

* Like Sir Richard Branson and Sir Alan Sugar, the future Sir Michael Smurfit left school at 16 and showed a remarkable entrepreneurial flair.

* After a stint in America he joined his father's company Jefferson Smurfit & Sons Ltd in 1955 and turned it into the world's largest packaging company through acquisitions in the USA, Latin America and Europe.

* With a personal fortune estimated at £274m, Sir Michael has a reputation for both a lavish lifestyle and a keen interest in sport. He spent £39million buying half the K Club, where this year's Ryder Cup is being held.

* He is honorary Irish consul to Monaco and has been honoured by the governments of Colombia, France, Great Britain, Italy and Venezuela.

* His philanthropic works include a donation of £4.1m to University College Dublin. The money established the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business.

* Holds dual Irish-British nationality and was knighted in 2005 for services to British business and charitable interests.

* He was listed at number 22 in The Sunday Times Rich List for Ireland and 221 for Britain.

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