Goodbye, my friend – Ron Kirby, R.I.P.

Roddy Carr

Ron Kirby (left) with Roddy Carr as they worked together on Apes Hill in Barbados

Roddy Carr pays a touching tribute to Ron Kirby, his mentor, design partner and friend of almost 40 years, who passed away recently

From his humble beginning as a caddie, caddie master and maintenance crew member, Ron Kirby became one of the most highly respected golf course architects in the world and a ‘fellow’ of the American Association of Golf Course Architects in his five-decade golf course designing career.

He was never an ego guy, it was never about him but always about what his clients wanted. He worked with Dick Wilson, Gary Player, Robert Trent Jones Senior and Jack Nicklaus. “I did my finishing school with Jack” he once told me. “Nicklaus was the best strategist, Trent Jones the best router and Fazio the best landscaper.”


He loved learning and that never stopped – and I loved that about him. He was always willing to listen and open to new ideas. Just last year, at 89, on his return from the Annual ASGCA Conference I asked him “how did you get on Ron?” ”I learned so much, it was great,” he answered with his usual youthful exuberance. I thought to myself – ‘hope I’m like that at 89!’

I first met Ron back in 1985 when he was the Senior Designer for Jack Nicklaus during the building of Mount Juliet GC in Kilkenny, Ireland. It was the beginning of a long love affair with Ireland for Ron and his beautiful and equally humble wife of 67 years, Sally, who sadly passed in 2020. I remember Ron picking Jack’s brains dry during the 11 trips he made to design his first course in Ireland. The design brief from the owner Tim Mahony when I brought him to visit Jack in his house in Palm Beach was, ”Jack, build me a golf course that people like me can enjoy. I’m a 19 handicap and I’ll give you the job”. Both Ron and I learned from this and Ron, of all the architects I have worked with over the years, designed and built challenging but always enjoyable courses.

Shortly after Mount Juliet opened, I was invited by John O’Connor the owner of the Old Head site in Kinsale to advise him on what he ought to do there. When I drove onto the 220 acre site, which was inhabited by goats at the time, to meet John, I fell to my knees in awe. It had to be the most spectacular site for a golf course anywhere in the world. It was the perfect fit. The discussions with John led to him asking me to get my father Joe involved in the design of the course. The problem was my father painted but had never designed any golf courses. Having discussed it with ‘Pop,’ I told him I have a solution.

The stunning Old Head Golf Links, Kirby’s legacy course

I will never forget the call I made to Ron asking him to help my father who was 76 at the time. He answered simply “I’d be honoured.” He and Sally moved to Kinsale and had one of the happiest chapters of their well-travelled lives building Old Head with John, my father and Hauley, the contractor on site.

The bottom line is that Old Head is a Ron Kirby design & routing and the success of the project is due to him creating arguably the most spectacular golf course on earth. It will be his legacy course.

Shortly after Old Head, Ron came to my aid again when I asked him to come to Barbados to renovate Barbados Golf Club, which opened in 2000, for the locals. He did that as a generous favour for me and we had fun building it the way he liked – the old fashioned way – with him sketching the holes on his pad and handing them to the specially chosen shaper – or earth painter as I call them – to deliver his picture of the hole.

Twenty years on I called on him again to come and redesign the Apes Hill Golf Course in Barbados, and to build a nine-hole Par-3 Course and a practice facility. He was 87 at the time but I knew he would like it as it too was a stunning site on the top of Barbados overlooking the Atlantic and Caribbean Oceans. I had the pleasure of working with Ron for the last three and a half years on his final project. We talked daily and had great times working and having fun in Barbados with his son Ronnie who travelled with him. Fittingly Apes Hill, which has been called “The Caribbean’s Newest Masterpiece,” will now be part of his legacy.

Apes Hill Golf Course, Barbados – One of Kirby’s final projects

He was an incredible man, always with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes, who had an abundance of rich friendships from the dozen and more countries he worked in around the globe. He was also a great friend of the Carr family. He lived a rich and full life, and did what he loved doing in sketching golf holes in Denmark right until the end, before departing whilst surrounded by his loving family.

You certainly left your mark Sir Ron – as I called him – and you will be sadly missed. Sally is waiting for you in the wall at Old Head where you will be remembered always.

Goodbye my friend.

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