2001: Preferred - Comfort zone

By John Steinbreder

Portsmouth, R.I.

At first glance, Peter de Savary absolutely fits the part of high-end golf impresario. His skin is nicely tanned, his beard and mustache meticulously trimmed. He wears designer sunglasses, a short-sleeve shirt with an open collar, dark pleated slacks, red socks and two-tone wing tips. In one hand is a portable phone, and in the other a double corona Punch. And stretching out behind the 57-year-old Englishman and the table at which he works is one of his five courses, Carnegie Abbey, built hard on Narragansett Bay outside Newport.

But in many ways, PDS, as his friends and employees call him, is a most unlikely club owner. The son of a French-born farmer, he never finished high school, getting the boot from a proper British institution after a teacher found him and the headmaster’s au pair doing more than their homework. He set out on his own when he was 17, and over the years made and lost millions in real estate, shipping and petroleum.

But he bought his first course only a decade ago. And he never has played a round of golf.

“I do have clubs,” he explains between phone calls and meetings one sultry summer afternoon. “It’s a 1952 set of Henry Cotton irons, and I have the original canvas bag as well. But I have never actually played a round.

“I really am going to learn,” he quickly adds. “I would like to become a reasonably good player.”

Whether that happens hardly matters to the people who belong to his sumptuous Carnegie Clubs, as long as he continues to provide great golf in the most luxurious settings imaginable. Great golf, and about anything else they could possibly desire.

De Savary entered the golf business quite accidentally. Back in 1990, he and his third wife, Lana, drove to an auction at Skibo Castle, the former summer home of industrialist Andrew Carnegie in Dornoch, Scotland. Their purpose was to buy a painting or two; by the next week he had bought the entire place, including the 7,500 acres on which it is situated. De Savary lived there with his family for a few years, but Skibo got increasingly expensive to maintain, especially after the economy slowed and put a major crimp in his finances. (He lost $100 million during that time, he says.)

So he and his wife decided to build a sort of luxury club around Skibo. Guests would pay for the privilege of staying at Carnegie’s old summer home and be treated extremely well in the process. They spent three years and some $30 million renovating the estate, which also included 12 stone cottages and a nine-hole course. A portion of that money went toward transforming that original track into an 18-hole links course that was designed by Scotsman Donald Steel and is bordered on three sides by the Dornoch Firth.

Skibo Castle opened for business in 1994, and it became an instant hit among the very well-to-do who loved staying at such an enchantingly elegant spot, where they were pampered by an intensely attentive staff and able to enjoy everything from falconry and fishing to horseback riding and skeet shooting. How good is it? Actress Anne Archer, who is married to noted golf television producer Terry Jastrow and counts de Savary as a good friend, says it is one of her four or five favorite places in the world. And Madonna chose Skibo as the location for her latest wedding. Archer, Madonna and Jack Nicholson are, in fact, members. As are Greg Norman and Fred Couples.

After Skibo, de Savary started Carnegie Clubs at Cherokee Plantation in South Carolina and the aforementioned Carnegie Abbey. And there are plans to add two others, in Tuscany and the Caribbean. Though each club is different in terms of look and location, they all have the same general feel. And they all have golf.

Carnegie Abbey members have full Skibo privileges, and Skibo members may visit Carnegie Abbey once a year. Cherokee is its own entity and is available only to its members and their guests.

The concept behind the Carnegie Clubs is to create something special for people who are very wealthy and very busy.

“I want to give them a discreet, attractive and pleasurable way to fill their precious time,” de Savary says. “I want to create a bit of graciousness of a bygone era, something a little old-fashioned, because I am that way. And I want the clubs to be totally different from any other resorts or hotels.”

And de Savary is not afraid to ask people to pay dearly for all that. Members at Carnegie Abbey, for example, have to put up a refundable deposit of $130,000 and pay annual dues of $7,500. Down at Cherokee Plantation, it’s a bit more costly, with full equity membership partners paying $3 million each.

De Savary’s properties are quite different, but then, he is, too. Though he was born in England, he spent most of the first nine years of his life in Venezuela, where his mother moved to marry an oil executive after divorcing his father. After his sudden departure from boarding school, PDS scraped around Toronto, peddling encyclopedias for a spell and selling Mercedes-Benz automobiles. In time, he moved back to England to be with his ailing father. Then in 1969, PDS headed to West Africa.

“That’s when I got involved in the import-export business,” he says. “We exported wheat flour and steel reinforcing bars and brought back timber and cocoa beans. Eventually, I started doing the same thing in the Middle East, selling steel, wheat flour and cement and buying crude oil in return. At one point, I even helped design and develop a camel-milking machine for the royal family in Saudi Arabia. I owned the cargo ships that carried the goods, and I came to own 13 different ship yards. I also got into real estate and spent some time in the funeral home industry, which was a terrible business but terribly profitable. And I owned some casinos.”

By all accounts, de Savary did quite well with his holdings. He worked feverishly, he lived large and he traveled the world. In 1983, for example, he skippered England’s entry in the America’s Cup. And though he did not earn the challenger’s spot, he won an enormous amount of attention for the party he threw in Newport after his racing was done, a wild black-tie affair in one of the city’s stately mansions. The party attracted 1,500 guests, Prince Andrew among them.

De Savary always kept a fierce schedule, and that caught up with him in the mid-1980s, when he fell ill and found that he had to slow down.

“My doctors said I needed to lead a much less stressful life,” he says.

So he sold most of his business interests and got involved in the hospitality world by founding a series of highbrow retreats known as the St. James Clubs. And then he made that fateful drive to Skibo.

More than a decade later, it is hard to see how PDS has slowed down. He constantly is moving, thinking, dreaming. At Carnegie one afternoon, he is talking on the phone, meeting with staff and making sure things are done right. No detail is too small, and he gently will chastise workers who do not park their golf carts properly, or straighten paintings that may be hanging crookedly.

“He has boundless energy and is very hard to keep up with,” says Georgina Prickett, the membership secretary at Carnegie Abbey and one of his vital lieutenants. “To him, everything is an adventure. He loves to move on things, he loves to have things going on, to have different projects in the works and new ideas.”

De Savary concurs.

“I get a lot of pleasure out of what I do. I am much less concerned with the amount of money I make than I am the quality of my life. For me, it is now all about trying to create something that people appreciate, and perhaps in 50 years it will be said that whoever did these properties did a really good job.”

He might not be concerned with money, but de Savary does want his properties to be profitable. Skibo, he says, operates in the black.

“Cherokee and Carnegie Abbey will be profitable as well, but it will take a little while because they are so new,” he explains.

De Savary also is quite concerned about his name and reputation, and those sometimes are called into question by anonymous critics who have dubbed him “Peter un Savory.” Not surprisingly, he thinks such talk not only is slanderous but also dead wrong.

“I am very fortunate that to the best of my knowledge I have done nothing in my life I am ashamed of, or embarrassed to share with my daughters,” he says. “I am a very straightforward person, and I try as best I can to be honest and fair with everyone I meet.

“I think some of this happens because of who I am. If you sort of come out of nowhere and have success, if you are gutsy and a risk-taker, you can create jealousy out there. And people who are like that tend to look for the negative in a person. They say they don’t like you or trust you, yet they have never even met you. They just take it upon themselves to characterize you maliciously. I accept the fact that some people do not like me. I just wish they would say that to my face.”

Good friends and business associates of de Savary dismiss the negative characterizations.

“I have found Peter to be a man of his word, and someone who has fulfilled all his obligations any time we have worked together,” says Jim Coady, who serves as executive director of Tournament Events Enterprises, which will be staging a Celebrity Player Tour event in New England next year.

Adds John Perreira, assistant headmaster at the Portsmouth Abbey school, which has leased de Savary the land for Carnegie Abbey: “Peter has done an outstanding job and developed a first-rate property. He has done everything he has promised us he would, and more. And he has always been true to his word.”

Jastrow, the executive producer of “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf,” has known de Savary for six years and shot three of his programs at three of PDS’s courses (Skibo, Cherokee and Carnegie Abbey).

“He is such a dreamer and visionary, and a man with very high standards,” Jastrow explains. “As a businessman, I find him very fair, balanced and direct. And I would be more (doubtful) of those who are critical of Peter than I ever would be of him.”

De Savary tries not to let those critics bother him after the discussion has headed in their direction. Instead, he dives back into his work, answering calls on a portable phone, discussing plans for a new 64,000-square-foot clubhouse at Carnegie Abbey and looking very much like someone who has been in the game all his life.

Even if he never has teed it up.

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