Robert Trent Jones Sr, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus; Sun City, Gleneagles and the Old Head.
It sounds like a who’s who and where’s where of golf but these are all names and places that figure significantly on Ron Kirby’s 52-year working resumé since he became consumed with golf design in 1960.
This autumn, Kirby celebrated his 80th birthday and one of golf’s most respected and experienced course architects chose to mark the milestone here in Ireland, not just on the renowned Old Head of Kinsale, the signature course he co-designed a little over 15 years ago, but at a more recent creation, the Castlemartyr Golf Resort’s 18 holes in East Cork.
For as much as Kirby is associated with the Old Head, perched on a cliff edge 300 feet above the Atlantic and which has become one of world golf’s most talked about bucket-list courses, the octogenarian is equally enamoured with the 6,790-yard, par-72 inland links he regards as “probably the most strategic 18 holes in Ireland”.
New Englander Kirby has had a hand in some platinum projects over his five decades in golf design, and worked for marquee bosses such as Trent Jones Sr, Player and Nicklaus, yet it is a picture of the unique and spectacularly photogenic Old Head that adorns his business card. For all that, though, Castlemartyr, where he meets the Irish Examiner in the clubhouse for lunch overlooking the 18th, is clearly an object of affection.
“Here, you didn’t need another parkland golf course. To build another parkland golf course here would have been a mistake, there wouldn’t be any players,” Kirby said. “So there’s a little something here, an appearance and flavour that means they are playing like a linksy-type game.
“I only had 100 acres and with the tight grasses we’ve used and strategy-wise, I’d learned enough that we could hide things.
“In the early things with Jones you had to see everything. There was a big bunker left, a big bunker right, big greens, big tees.
“Now, here, it’s not about how far you can hit it. You have got to hit it into position to play the next shot. Play and position.
“This is probably the most strategic 18 holes, maybe in Ireland. Maybe Ballybunion is close, because you need strategy there and the mounds are huge, like Portstewart. But there’s not a mound at Portmarnock that means anything because they’re not high enough. I mean, they’re good but if your ball rolls into them they don’t hide the green. It’s a very visible golf course, at least the way I remember it.
“Here, we try to hide things, give them a little strategy, put pin positions so you can’t see everything, hide some bunkers. I’m really proud of it.”
Even after more than 50 years in the business, Kirby loves what he does, relishes a blank canvas to work on and a vantage point from which to start.
“I’ll go out there, sit on the bucket and sketch out the greens,” he has said. “It might take me a while sitting there before I get it, but it usually comes to me fairly quickly.
“The excitement comes in the mystery. If it’s an 18-hole project, where are you going to put them? And the fun part there is, you can’t use the first routing, meaning the way the holes circulate over the property. I love doing that. I love finding a place where I can say ‘the course should start here and then go back this way’.
“At the Old Head, John O’Connor would probably say there were 40 routings but it was probably 20 before we got it where we wanted it and we’re still polishing that one off at the Old Head. Look at Augusta, they’re still making minor improvements at Augusta. I mean, they’re really minor now. It’s so good now you can’t do much more with it. They may have to start taking out some of the trees they added in there.
“But it’s just such a lot of fun and every day somebody makes phone a call. Just yesterday, I’m driving the car through Austria and Italy and I get a phone call. Sally [Mrs Kirby] answers the phone and ‘Oh God’, she hands me the phone and I have a conversation. I get off the call and say ‘I think I may have a project’. She says ‘you idiot!’ but it could be fun.
“Every golfer is a golf architect and if you can get paid to do it...”
Kirby has been getting paid to design course since 1960, having left his native Massachusetts to work in Florida for architect Dick Wilson, a rival of Trent Jones Sr.
“Dick Wilson lit up my eyes about how you can use imagination,” Kirby said. “You don’t have to have a bunker left, a bunker right. He’d put two on the right and at different levels. I can do that? Of course, it makes for better strategy, makes a third dimension.”
Kirby has not lost that desire for strategy in a golf course although the industry he works in has changed out of all proportion over his 52-year career. “When I started there were probably 40 golf courses a year being built in America. It went from 40 to 50 to 60 and got to average about 150 golf courses a year in the 70s and by the 90s it got to 200 and went almost to 400 one year. Now you’ve got maybe four projects, it’s so bad. Four projects to share in America.”
Ireland is similarly troubled and Kirby pulls no punches on the subject of course proliferation.
“You did just as bad as we did it. The Japanese did it. The Americans did it. The Irish have done it.
“We all just overbuilt. It seemed like a good thing so everybody was going to do it and we built too many golf courses here and the reason was everybody thought they could have these property development courses. You see them now and it doesn’t work. There’s only so many players. The worse thing we did.”
Kirby does not excuse himself and the marquee names he worked with from blame as courses proliferated while the numbers of golfers grew fewer.
“‘What Tom Fazio did, boy, wait til’ you see what Jack Nicklaus did’. We made the golf courses too damn tough. You can’t play through all those nests of bunkers. Gary [Player] was the best of the bunch because he knows where to strategically place bunkers and that one bunker can be good enough.
“In this golf course [Castlemartyr] we’ve got 67 bunkers, on some courses here in Ireland they’ve got 150, it’s just crazy. We hurt ourselves with all these pro designers, who are good but they’re getting big fees to compete with each other and the poor golfer can’t handle it and the members can’t pay for it.
“Jack even agrees now that we made the golf courses too tough. I heard his last talk: ‘We’ve got to soften up and make them more friendly to play. What’s wrong with an easy golf course?’ Everybody’s getting older and the younger guys can’t afford to play because of the cost of maintaining all those bunkers.
“This course will stay because it’s good,” he said of Castlemartyr.
“Not because it’s me but because it offers a damn good game. It’s not killing everybody with length and the price is right.
“With the maturity of the gorse it will just be a good golf course and word of mouth will get it there. “Golfers are the worst talkers If one green died here it would be ‘have you seen that!’ But if it’s good it’s the greatest golf course.
“It’s the two extremes with golfers. And the Old Head took advantage of that. ‘If you haven’t played the Old Head, put it on your bucket list.’ So they’re living on that.”
And long live Ron Kirby. Happy 80th birthday sir.
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