Kirby is king of the Castle

FRIEND and colleague of Jack Nicklaus, disciple of the legendary Robert Trent Jones, outstanding architect in his own right.

That’s Ron Kirby, a 71-year-old American who lives life as if he was half that age. And now he is about to delight Irish golfers by producing a golf course in Co Clare that will quickly and easily sit alongside other Irish masterpieces he has helped to create, like Mount Juliet and the Old Head near Kinsale.

Kirby isn’t exactly building an entirely new course at luxurious Dromoland Castle. It just feels that way. With due respect to those who came before, the original layout was not in keeping with the remainder of this superb estate. If there was to be a golf course, it had to be a good one. And that’s why, after some hesitancy, the owners of Dromoland decided to bite the bullet.

They handed Carr Golf, the company headed by Joe Carr’s son, Marty, a 5m budget and a 180-acre site for redevelopment of the existing course. Joe Carr had worked with Ron Kirby at the Old Head and advised Marty that he was the man for the job. Their mission: to build a golf course that would entice people to stay at Dromoland to play the course rather than use it as a base to try their golfing skills at Lahinch, Doonbeg or wherever. A happy alliance sprung up from the outset, the project much helped by the valued assistance and enthusiastic support of course superintendent Paul Coleman.

“I was asked to see what potential we had to improve the golf course, could it be improved, how far we could take it,” Kirby explained. “I called Marty and said the potential was here. It could be as good as the King’s or Queen’s at Gleneagles.

“It’s got the lake, the castle and some fine ground. There were some drainage problems but I told him we needed some money and some time, about three years. We eliminated the bad holes, looked at the medium holes to see how we could improve them and just left the good holes.”

A tour of the course with designer Kirby was more than a little illuminating. He isn’t an advocate of length for length’s sake and he actually shortened the third hole. It’s the first of four par threes, all of which are played in different directions and are both challenging and aesthetically pleasing.

“Two holes here are 325 and 275 yards and they will be seen as classics,” he maintained, adding: “You’ve got to have a mix and you’ve got to have length. On your par threes, you’re supposed to have one short, two medium and one long. On the par fives, the ideal is one you can’t reach, two you can and one for sure you’re not going to reach.

“I learned about routing from Robert Trent Jones, strategy from Jack Nicklaus. Jack’s strategy is to be friendly on the tee shot, if you look at the middle tees at Mount Juliet, there’s plenty of room to hit the ball. From the landing area, you wonder what he wants you to do. He’s complicated with the second shot, not just to get the ball on the green but which part of the green. If your dogleg goes left, you don’t bunker right, if your dogleg goes right, you don’t bunker left. It’s pretty basic. That’s the finishing school of golf when you work for Nicklaus.

“He’s a perfectionist. There’s one word to describe his work. Intense. The way he plays the game, the way he fishes, the way he hunts. Intense. He’s the best guy and the smartest guy but when he’s working, there’s no small talk. If I was to buy a golf course, I’d get Pete Dye to do it. That would be the most fun. But I would recommend any owner to hire Nicklaus. That’s the best product out there. Nicklaus will not have a loser.”

We continued our tour of the “new Dromoland” happening across potential gems like the 175 yards 7th played from an elevated tee down to a beautifully shaped green surrounded by a new pond and bunkers with Lake Dromoland and the castle comprising a majestic backdrop. “My calendar hole”, glowed Kirby. The 325 yards 9th, where at the time of our visit workmen were digging out a massive crater to accommodate a lake that will front the green, he likened to the 10th at The Belfry. Its potential is enormous whereas you can see just how good the 10th and 11th, sharply breaking left to right doglegs with the lake for company most of the way, already are.

We arrived at the 16th where Kirby has created a monster par four across the meandering River Rine of 450 yards. It will test the best just as will the brand new 17th, a par three of 220 yards, and the 580 yards 18th with the green located immediately in front of and below the majestic castle.

“I designed that one from the bar with a glass of whiskey in my hand,” he laughed.

Ron Kirby already enjoys a well deserved reputation as one of golf’s finest designers. His work at Dromoland is sure to add further lustre to the undoubted quality of his work. He points out: “The owners don’t want people coming here just to stay in the hotel and head off to play Lahinch, Doonbeg, Ballybunion and so on. This place is fantastic. The hotel is one of the best you’ll ever stay in. The lake is fantastic. Now the golf course is fantastic. People should come here to play golf. We’re trying to reverse what used to happen here.”

In more recent times, Kirby has been closely identified with the Old Head and several other outstanding creations all over the world. All the seeding at Dromoland will have been completed by the end of June and although the course of 6, 810 yards (par 72), won’t be fully up and running until June 2004, the certainty is it will quickly be regarded as another jewel in the crown of Irish golf. It’s that good.

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