“This is a special one” – Ron Kirby on his latest design at Barbados’ Apes Hill

Mark McGowan

Apes Hill 16th Hole

When he elected to leave his post as project manager overseeing the European side of the Jack Nicklaus Design business in the mid-1990s, Ron Kirby couldn’t have imagined that his next project would become one of the most spectacular golf courses in the world.

After being contacted by legendary Irish amateur Joe Carr, the rugged clifftops of Kinsale became the canvas on which they’d paint the masterpiece that is Old Head Golf Links. Perched on an isolated headland that juts out two miles into the Atlantic Ocean, breathtaking is an understatement, and there’s not a single golfer fortunate enough to play that won’t have lasting memories of the experience.

More than a quarter of a century later, now working with Joe’s son Roddy as a design consultant, Kirby’s latest work has been unveiled with the remodeling of Barbados’ Apes Hill. And though vastly different to Old Head in setting, Kirby was able to draw on certain similarities for the redesign.


Though Barbados is significantly larger than Old Head, Apes Hill is located on the narrow portion of the island, occupies its highest usable terrain and is roughly equidistant from the eastern and western shores.

“Old Head is basically an island connected with a little isthmus at the gate,” Kirby explains. “But you have almost 360° of cliffs, so you try to get as close to the cliffs as you could to use those features. When I saw Apes Hill, you’ve got some super vistas. You can look at two oceans in some places! So, I said, “all we’ve got to do here is make sure that players can take in the vistas.”

Set on the site of an old sugar plantation, Apes Hill first opened in 2009, though soon fell into financial difficulty and disrepair before being bought by Canadian businessman Glen Chamandy in 2019, with the clothing magnate announcing a $24 million renovation project, bringing in Kirby to redesign the course.

The second hole, for sure, is now Kirby’s favourite and most reflective of his style. “It was a par three; now we’ve got a two-way hole,” he fondly recalls. “We extended the green and moved the tees back. It was almost an unplayable par three: into the wind, uphill… nobody would love this hole, so you’d play two holes and already you didn’t like the course. We turned it into a really fun, friendly par four. You have a chance to get out of there smiling. I didn’t have to go too far to find a hole I would love.”

As much as Kirby’s redesign was intended to improve the playing experience in terms of routing and vistas, the poor conditioning of the course which he first saw made it imperative that the remodel would be much more sustainable, and this included reseeding with a different strain of grass.

“Sustainability means don’t build anything that you can’t maintain,” Kirby explains. “Number one was the bunkers – we couldn’t maintain those, so we’ve eliminated two thirds of the bunkers. That’s cut back on the maintenance of the bunkers, the sand and erosion, and of course the irrigation.

“Zoysia grass is tolerant to drought, so we don’t have to keep pumping water on to keep it green and alive, it will maintain itself. We’ve taken away around 1,000 sprinklers, reducing irrigation by a third. Supply here is from a huge lake, which collects the mountain rainfall instead of letting it run off into the sea, millions of gallons.”

In addition to the Championship Course, Kirby oversaw the creation of a par-3 course that can be enjoyed by serious golfers, kids and families alike, with many holes playing homage to classic par-3 holes from around the world.

“We’ve taken inspiration from some of the world’s most famous par-three holes,” he said. “It’s great for the kids and the families to go out and have fun, but a lot of golfers will say, ‘I’ve never played the Postage Stamp, I’ve never been to Royal Troon”, so they can come here and try it.

“We also built a 19th hole similar to the famous 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass, where it’s so dynamic because it’s an island green. You’re either on the green or in the water.”

Inclusion, is very much part of the ethos at Apes Hill, and the Championship Course follows a similar mantra. “We only needed four tees per hole,” Kirby details, “but we put them in spaces where they could cover all types of players, from guys who can hit it pure to the average guys and then the poor players like me. We have friendly forward tees for the beginners, challenge tees for the better players. It’s fun for everyone. Pick your poison and see where you want to tee it up from.”

“I’m just looking for fun, different holes to build,” Kirby illustrates when asked what way he’d define his architectural style. “I look for a chance to make the short holes more exciting and I always want to make something that’s fair for the player. Because I was a greenkeeper, I want to build things that can be maintained, kept neat and manicured.

“What we’ve done here is the result of a lot of hard work and it wasn’t an easy job. The weather was hitting us hard with storms, Covid delayed us… but I’m proud to be part of it. I can sit back and say this is one of mine. I can say that about maybe 150 golf courses, but this is a special one.”

For more information on Apes Hill, click here.

Stay ahead of the game. Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest Irish Golfer news straight to your inbox!

More News

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy & Terms of Service apply.