The Flying Golfer: The extraordinary career of golf trip pioneer Sean Skehan

The Flying Golfer: The extraordinary career of golf trip pioneer Sean Skehan
Sean Skehan pictured in Castletroy Park Hotel, Limerick today. Pic. Brian Arthur

Chances are Sean Skehan is either on the golf course or in the air while you’re reading this. It’s 45 years now since he essentially introduced to Ireland what we now commonly refer to as The Golf Trip.

Into his 45th year leading golf trips to 69 far-flung countries — if we cheat a little and grant Corfu and Hawaii autonomous status — Sean Skehan is getting ready to retire. At least he was at the beginning of the interview. Now he’s not so sure.

Ireland’s Flying Golfer is 80 next year and has survived a bleed to the brain that kills or seriously impairs 84% of those unfortunate to suffer one.

“You may decide when you listen back to the tape that I am impaired, but I’m walking every morning, I’ve lost three stone. I feel good. Pauline wants me to stop, but I’m not sure how I can. It’s what I do. I love it. My epitaph would be simple: I made a difference to a lot of people’s lives. People who’ve become friends have seen parts of the world they wouldn’t have only for our golf trips.

“There’s a friend of mine in the flooring business, Brian Murray, and he uses his advertising spend to take customers on a trip with us. And it’s the only thing they talk about still when he meets them. The places they saw….”

Skehan has seen them all. Reccied the resorts. Secured the flights. Organised the trips. Stood on the first tee. Marked the cards. Counted the points. Hosted the presentation. Overseen the entertainment. Put the guests to bed. He’s played more golf in more countries than Harrington or McIlroy and racked up more air miles than a commercial pilot.

He trade-marked ‘TheFlying Golfer’ because he’s been the market leader in golf travel exotica from this country since 1975. And he’s still got a few more holes in him.

“I played a guy in 1975 for what was a lot of money at the time — £100. And I won the match around the 14th. And he decided to go double or quits. And he lost again and hadn’t the money. But he had a holiday voucher which he’d won to play in a pro-am in Jamaica. He asked me would I take it. So I went on holiday and was fascinated by the idea of playing lovely golf courses in unimaginably nice destinations.

“I worked in the insurance business at the time and it was in the early stages of people being fascinated by golf. I read about an island called Corfu, the golf writer Tom Roberts used to wax eloquent about it. So I thought I’d try and put a trip together.

“It was quite famous at the time, because one of the country’s most famous celebrities was on it. He was then, and remained for the rest of his life, a paying customer. He’d never take a free trip. He was on maybe 50 trips with me and paid full whack every time — on the basis that if he was getting a free trip he had to sing. Whereas if he was paying, he could sing if he wanted to.

“He was a great guy, a great, great guy. On the night we took off for Corfu, the flight was delayed a few hours. He’d played in the national ballroom that night. He arrived all checked in — which couldn’t happen today — and he’d had a few vodkas before he got on board. He ordered a drink from the air hostess and she said: ‘You had enough’.

‘You needn’t bother your arse, I’ve plenty here with my bottle of duty free,’ he said. So, of course, the next thing was the captain was down with handcuffs and going to go divert the plane. Myself and Joey Purcell, the pro from Portmarnock whose son Conor played Walker Cup this year, calmed him down and five minutes later he was asleep.

“We thought that was the end of it. Aer Lingus were very clever though. We were going home on the Monday, and on the Saturday morning before the message came through that he’d not be allowed board the flight home. So we went to the airport Monday but the flight went without him. And he had to go from Corfu to Athens, Athens to London, and London to Dublin, and arrived home to find himself on the front page of the Evening Herald.

“He laughed: ‘With all the hit records I’ve had, that was the only time I got on the front page of paper.’”

Things are a little more sophisticated now. Next June and October 2020, Skehan will lead a group at €3,250 per person to the Dominican Republic via Philadelphia and onto Punta Cana. They’ll play six rounds of golf, two on Pete Dye’s acclaimed Teeth of the Dog, and breath in the Caribbean air.

“Back in Corfu in the 70s, the apartment block was as basic as basic gets. Pauline and I shared with Joe and Ann Cuddy, Donal and Gladys Duggan and Gladys had to climb over the Cuddys and the Skehans to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. Can you imagine nowadays?

“If I put people in that today, I would simply give them a note of my solicitor’s name and address.”

The obvious opener is to identify the best course, the best resort, the best food and the best accommodation Sean Skehan has sampled or savoured. There’s no one straight answer. More a question of ‘what are you looking for?’

“Before, the nearest thing to the ideal golf trip was Fuengirola, which was my first Spanish destination that I really took to. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s after Torremolinos and before Marbella. The PYR apartments was the perfect holiday — less than a three-hour flight from Dublin to Malaga, half an hour transfer.

"Perfectly clean, lovely apartments. “Our golf program was a day at Mijas, a day or two at Torrequebrada and a day at Sotogrande. That’s what you could do back in the late 70s. I found the brochure recently and you got all of that for £150 — flight, accommodation, four rounds of golf. That was as near as you’d get to perfection.

“Perhaps Thailand is the most wonderful golfing destination — guaranteed sunshine, great food, cheap drink and wonderful golf, but it’s a 16-hour flight. So I don’t know does the ‘perfect’ golf trip exist because people want different things. Are you a couple in their 60s or four lads looking for golf and fun?

“I wasn’t deterred by the Corfu experience. The next place was Thailand. Christy O’Connor Jr and Sr represented Ireland in the World Cup in Bangkok in 1975. And I heard about that and put a trip together. I spoke to Kevin Marron, who wrote the Chairman’s column for the Sunday World at the time and everyone read it. He mentioned about my trip to Thailand. I got 12 bookings out of it, making it viable.

Casa de Campo
Casa de Campo

“One of the people who read about it was Albert Reynolds. He went on a trip, he wasn’t even a TD at the time. I remember to this day him telling me that he was going after Frank Carter’s FF seat in Longford. Nine months later, he was a TD. And he kept on traveling with me until he became the Taoiseach.

“He never drank but would sit up to three o’clock in the morning with all the craic. The courses were wonderful. At the time I said Thailand was the best place in the world to play golf. And I might still say that.

“But the golf courses that made it the best then aren’t the ones we play anymore — we played Navatanee, which hosted that World Cup, but we don’t play it anymore, because a) we don’t really go to Bangkok, we go to the outskirts instead and b) it is just too expensive and there are other places that are just as good — but more reasonable.

“But that first trip was magic. We had to go overnight in London and it was a DC 8 plane with no movies on board. I think we touched down three times on the way, Karachi and Athens for certain. Now people moan if there’s a one-hour stopover in Dubai.

“But there was such a sense of adventure. People didn’t know what to expect, then they found themselves in an incredibly luxurious hotel with fantastic service. It still is the most wonderful place to go. People say to me ‘isn’t there a sex industry there?’

"I’m sure there’s a sex industry in Mallow now. It did have that reputation, of course it did. But I would say that 90% of my customers going to Thailand are married couples, widows, or priests. And they certainly aren’t going for sex.”

Thailand convinced Skehan to pack up the security of the insurance business and go for broke. He had no collateral and four children. Pauline thought he was mad, but she saddled up. And then Skehan eyed a new golf frontier — Arizona.

“I saw this ad for a trip to Arizona. And I got onto the guy and said if I get you 12 people, will you give me a free holiday? I got 40 but the bugger still only gave one one holiday! It cost me money. The organisation on his trip was diabolical but he got lucky — Joe Cuddy was on the trip and was at the peak of his powers at the time.

“He was a wonderful singer. And we arrived in Arizona having taken a day and a half to get there — when it should have been half a day. I went out after dinner in the hotel and there was a three-piece playing in the lobby. And I said to the girl: ‘You know, we’ve got a great singer on the trip with us from Ireland? Would you like him to sing a song?’ And I knew by her face the last thing she wanted was this gobshite from Ireland.

“But I still see the woman’s face when Joe started. She could not believe just how brilliant Cuddy was. He never sang better than that night. And the concierge called me over and said ‘My friend, Bob Hope is at the golf (event nearby), I am going to get him to come listen to this guy, Joe Cuddy. And he did. Bob Hope arrived for two songs and came back two days later and listened again. He never took it further. More’s the pity.

“In the mid-80s I learned of a place in Florida, Rolling Hills, where they filmed ‘Caddyshack’. I went there in 1987 and they had this happy hour — you came in off the course and had a feed afterwards — as long as you bought a beer.

“I got talking to the pro. They had accommodation and the deal was that off-season, golf was $1 a day. So effectively, I could say to people at home they could fly to Florida, and play golf as much as they’d like — and all you have to do is pay for the buggy. At the time the dollar was weak. And it was also the time the Russians flew into Shannon.

“I was able to sell Florida cheaper than Spain, via Aeroflot. The flight service was terrible out of Shannon. You had to buy your own drink — all they served was mixers on the plane. I wasn’t making money. I was organising trips through an agency and they were taking their bit off the top.

“In the late 80s, I probably was within an inch of going bankrupt. But the 90s were a different kettle of fish with an explosion of money and wealth in Ireland, and I was the right man in the right place at the right time. And by that time, I was 20 years down the road. I knew all the places.”

As importantly, there was no internet. Couples or groups needed Sean Skehan and he had the inside line on every golfing resort and destination. The Flying Golfer took off.

“Amazingly enough, and this perhaps is the most important and amazing thing about my entire story, nobody else in Ireland has ever tried to do what I do. If you are four people or eight people, and you want to play golf in Spain or Portugal, you can go to a travel agent or put it together on your laptop. But the essence of golf is competition.

“And what I do is I create an ambiance where people can come together — and they don’t know one another at the start. They are people normally beyond the stage of holding hands and gazing soulfully into each other’s eyes every night. And I devised a competition format whereby on the first day, Husband A plays with Wife C. Four people playing together who’ve never met.

And you’ve got a similar thing is happening with 60 people. And suddenly you have people who are friends. I’ve had two marriages from this sort of thing. We play three rounds of golf and the first two I do the draw, and they make sure that people are playing with people other than the people that they came with. On the last day, you can pick your own partners in the last day.

"And perhaps the most gratifying thing about that is that on the last day, you’ll find they’ll stick with their new friends. I would say to four lads looking for their own few days of golf, don’t go on one of our organised trips because it ain’t what you want. The twain don’t meet, they’re two separate animals.”

Entertainment elements were soon bolted onto the golf and just over 20 years ago, Killester Travel was formed. It’s now a multi-faceted business that flies rugby adventurers to the Heineken Cup, Six Nations and World Cup, and packages the end-of-year holiday trips for the GAA’s top inter-county teams.

This winter, Killester will put the sunglasses on All-Ireland champions Tipperary as well as the hurlers of Kilkenny and the footballers of Kerry. Skehan will travel to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Fifteen years ago, he was in South Africa when Dublin, Kilkenny and Kerry huddled up together at the same hotel and Páidí Ó Sé looked out wistfully in Capetown at that boat in the harbour. You probably read about all the craic in the papers.

But 40% of the company’s business remains flying golfers. And there are enduring favourites. Like Cadiz, which he describes as “very near perfection.” Or Fancourt in South Africa — “I would find it very hard to find a better golf resort.”

Cyprus too has claimed an increasing share of the market, with good reason — “You are pretty well guaranteed all-year weather, super hotels and four of the best golf courses anywhere. And the people are so delighted to see you.”

Changes over the years?

“If I had 60 people on a trip back in the day, 40 were golfers and 20 were non-golfing women. Today if I have 60 people, 40 would be women anyway. 60% of my customers are women — more women travel solo nowadays than men on their own.”

He’s dealt with the good, the great and the downright awkward. His favourite company? “I would put Joe Dolan, Paddy Cole, and Joe Cuddy in that bracket. Dolan would cheerfully go out to play with three 36-handicap women and they would come in having had the best day’s golf in their life. Joe was magic. I often wish he’d been alive to see his funeral, to see how much people loved him.”

He was also the singer on that notorious Aer Lingus flight to Corfu once upon a time.

“From the sporting sphere, people like Eddie Keher, Babs Keating, great characters. Babs would talk to anybody — he never has one song, he has six.”

He namechecks Sesmibra, 45 minutes south of Lisbon as a ‘hidden gem’ of a resort with great golf alongside in Quinta do Peru and Aroeira. Troia, a ferry ride from Setubal is a wonderful day out, but a beastly golf course. Sam Torrance won the Portuguese Open there with one-over par.

There may not be a ‘next big thing’ left for Skehan to annex, but he’ll always be partial to El Saler in Valencia, “one of the great golf courses.

“I played with Seve one time in La Manga. He’d just come from the Spanish Open at La Saler where Langer had won with a final round 62 (10 under par). Seve said it was the purest round of golf he had seen. What a magic golf course. Seve was terrific fun. I won a thousand pesetas off him that day but he never paid me.”

theflyinggolfer.com

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