A life in design: an interview with Ron Kirby

  • Ron Kirby
    Kristopher Streek

    Ron Kirby’s career in golf design has spanned eight decades

  • Ron Kirby
    Mike Toy

    Kirby is working at Apes Hill in Barbados to emphasise the course’s natural beauty and spectacular vistas

  • Ron Kirby
    Kristopher Streek

    He has sketched throughout his life to get his design ideas across to shapers and construction crews

  • Ron Kirby

    Kirby at Old Head in Kinsale on Ireland’s south coast, alongside the club’s general manager Jim O’Brien and owner Patrick O’Connor

  • Ron Kirby

    Old Head is perhaps the highest profile project Kirby has worked on in his long career

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Most people retire in or around their middle sixties, perhaps a bit later these days given the pressure on pension funds the world over. Very few are still working after their ninetieth birthday. But then, very few people have a life like Ron Kirby.

From growing up in Beverly, Massachusetts, 15 miles north of downtown Boston, to 18 different homes around the world, Kirby has seen more in his life than most could possibly dream of.

Golf was a part of his life from a young age. “My dad was a club pro in New Hampshire – my brother and I worked in the shop, and I didn’t care for the members, so he gave me a rake and set me loose on the golf course,” he says. “In 1950 I went to turf school at the University of Massachusetts on a Francis Ouimet Caddy Scholarship – something I’m still very proud of, and I still support the fund. My ambition was to be an assistant greenkeeper.”

It wasn’t just learning about turf in those days – the young Kirby learned another skill that he has used throughout his life; drawing. To this day, he continues to sketch his design ideas to get them across to shapers and construction crews. “My grandfather was an artist, and I used to paint with him,” he says. “When I was a kid, in the winters, you could get watercolour lessons in Boston at the Museum of Fine Art, so I did that. My brother and I could go and get into trouble in Boston, but I learned I can draw. I sketch what’s there, and I can then draw the green in. It’s easy for me. You don’t want the bulldozer guy to draw, you want him on the bulldozer, but if you can show what you want in a sketch, it’s easier to understand.”

He met his wife, Sally, in 1949; they were married three years later and travelled the world together for 68 years until her death in January 2020. “In the winter, we’d head south to Florida; my dad was working down there, and he introduced me to various golf architects,” he says. “I got a connection to Dick Wilson from my dad. Wilson was doing a job at Riviera in Coral Gables, Florida, where he lived. Bob von Hagge was doing most of the work. Wilson was hard to know. His favourite drink was Dubonnet and soda, and he started into it pretty early in the day. Somewhere in the early 60s, there was a centrefold of Wilson and Robert Trent Jones. Jones was in a button-down shirt and a blazer, and Wilson was on a tractor in work boots, with straw in his hair. That summed up the difference between them. I think Wilson was a genius at strategy. I watched what he did at Doral and was really impressed.”

After Wilson, Kirby went to work with Jones, the most successful golf architect of the era. “I was doing some work at Paradise Island in Nassau, and the pro from Nassau CC called me and said Jones was staying there and I should meet him, so I went over there. He was interested in what I was doing with hydraulic fill. We had pumped in 40 acres of sea bottom sand and he was fascinated by that. He told me he was building a team, and if I wanted a job, here was his business card.”

Kirby says he held Jones in very high regard, even though he could be hard work. “I really loved him,” he says. “At the 1963 US Open, which was held at the Country Club at Brookline, I had arranged to meet him at a dinner. I borrowed my mother’s car to get there, but he sent me a message that he wouldn’t be there, and instead I should meet him at the Yale Club in Manhattan at 10 the following morning. Imagine, I’m in Boston and he says, ‘Meet me in New York tomorrow morning’! Later I learned that wasn’t unusual for him. So, I took the Eastern Shuttle, and got to the club. Roger Rulewich was sitting there, Jones was in a phone booth. He slid the door open and said, ‘Ron, I’ll be with you in a minute’. The doors went back and forth, and he told me that I needed to go to Fort Lauderdale and I should talk to a particular guy about buying a house, and I should be ready to go to California. But they were the greatest seven years of my life. I met so many powerful people, it was a real eye opener. One day he said to me, ‘We have a lot of work in Europe, you should go live there for a bit’. We had a job in Yorkshire, England, at Moor Allerton, so I lived there for some time.”

Kirby says that Jones was a classic ‘big picture’ designer. “When he was on site, we’d go over the land for the new courses, and then, one night, he’d sit down and do the layout,” he says. “He had a marble table in his garage, a scale, and a pencil that was dull, with an eraser on the end of it. He’d sit there, asking which way does the wind blow, Ron? And all the layouts that were good were done on that marble topped table in his garage!”

Kirby founded his own design firm in 1970, working for a time with Gary Player, and then, in 1986, sold the business to Golden Bear, Inc, and went to work for Jack Nicklaus, overseeing European projects. They had first met in 1963, when a young Nicklaus came to the Bahamas to go fishing, and Kirby arranged a boat and skipper to take them out. “Nicklaus was the opposite of Jones – he was very detail-oriented,” Kirby says. “He wouldn’t draw anything till he had everything sorted in his mind. When we were building the Monarch’s course at Gleneagles, now the Centenary, on which the Ryder Cup was played, we were walking past the eighth hole one day. He said, can we back it up a bit? See how far back you can go. Next trip he said, the green’s not right. He’d remembered we could back it up, we had backed it up by 10 yards, and he said, ‘You didn’t back up the landing area!’ He wanted the dogleg moved. He’s a detail guy. I had Jones get me started, but Nicklaus is a finishing school. Meeting Jones and meeting Jack were two of the greatest things that happened to me.”

In the 1990s, the great Irish amateur Joe Carr got Kirby involved with the Old Head project in Kinsale on Ireland’s south coast. Old Head remains the most high-profile project Kirby has worked on in his long career, and surely the most spectacular site, on a headland poking two miles out into the Atlantic, and with steep sea cliffs all the way round. Kirby’s routing puts as many holes right next to the cliffs as possible, creating a golf course of almost unmatched memorability. “The O’Connor brothers, who developed the course, said they had an Eddie Hackett layout, and there was a greenkeeping guy there who was shaping some greens, but that was about it when I got there,” he says. “Joe said to me ‘I’ve been asked to do a golf course; can you help me? I don’t know how to build a golf course,’ and so I got involved. There was very little budget. Now it’s a success, but it took time. If money guys had got hold of it, they could have done it quicker, but I don’t know if it would have been any better. I lived in Kinsale for five years, not a bad place to spend your time.”

Some critics of Old Head have complained that the greens, in particular, are too flat and lack interest, but Kirby says this was a deliberate choice in response to the site. “Joe originally said the greens would need to be flat, and he was right,” he says. “You can’t have severe undulations in your greens that close to cliff edges in a windy place like that. The ball would blow right off. We built collecting greens for that reason.”

And now, late in his career, Kirby is rebuilding the Apes Hill course in central Barbados. He has a long history of working in the Caribbean, building nine holes for Jones at Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico, and the Palmas del Mar course for his own firm, with Gary Player as its signature designer. “Roddy Carr, Joe’s son, asked me to do a redo at Bahamas Country Club – which was tricky, there was again very little budget, and they didn’t have enough water, but we got it in play – and it was him who got me involved at Apes Hill,” he says. “Landmark Land originally developed it, and it was designed by the company’s in-house team, Chris Cole and Jeff Potts. They didn’t do a bad job, the routing is pretty good, but it was too difficult – the opening hole was an uphill par five straight into the prevailing wind, and it went on in the same kind of mode. Landmark brought in some shapers who had worked with Pete Dye, and the course had 100-odd unplayable bunkers. But it is a fantastic site with great vistas and plenty of water – the owner has a huge reservoir.”

In 2019, Apes Hill was sold to Canadian investor Glenn Chamandy, and since then Kirby has been at work, revising the course. “My goal was to make a course that, after you played it, you wanted to play it again,” he says. “I said to the owner, ‘Have you played Augusta?’. He said yes. I said, ‘Well, there’s thirty bunkers on that course, let’s try for that’. I think it is coming out really well – the real estate is selling now, and the new ownership is on the plus side.”

After six decades in golf design, Kirby has, surely, seen it all. What has changed? “Marquee golfers got into the design business in the past, but I don’t think we’re going to see much more of that. You’ve got to look more at the quality of the designer, not the name of the Tour player,” he says.

This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.