SUN CITY OWES
ITS DESIGN TO
RON KIRBY

GARY PLAYER'S FORMER AMERICAN
DESIGN PARTNER DIES AT AGE 90.

Published by : Stuart McLean - 31 August 2023

Gary Player Country Club will forever be associated with South Africa’s most accomplished sportsman, yet the design of the Sun City resort layout in the late 1970s was not one where he was the sole course architect. Many have forgotten that it was a collaboration with American Ron Kirby, who passed away on August 17 at the age of 90.

Kirby was almost constantly on site during construction of Sun City in 1978 when Player was having one of his greatest competitive years in America.

Player turned his attention to the lucrative and booming course design business in 1970. At the age of 34 and one of golf’s biggest global stars – he won four of his nine majors in the 1970s – he wisely chose to join forces with an experienced consultant architect in Kirby.

The 18th at Gary Player CC during the week of the Nedbank Challenge.

Kirby had begun his career in this trade as a design associate with leading US architects Dick Wilson and Robert Trent Jones before founding his own company in 1970 in Atlanta, Georgia and teaming with Player. For 16 years their collaborative efforts saw them mostly design courses in the US, Japan and Spain, plus two in South Africa, before they parted ways.

Kirby was unusually hands-on during the building of the Sun City layout. “Gary got me the job, and it was one of the more fun projects I had,” he said in a recent Golf Digest podcast. “I made 11 trips to South Africa in one year, so I almost lived there. I learned a lot on that job, and had more creative juices running (in that design) than in real estate development working with land planners.”

Kirby said he related well with the owners of golf course developments outside the United States, one being Sol Kerzner, who made Sun City happen. “These guys didn’t want cookie-cutter designs, but rather something special,” he said.

The original GPCC design had the nines reversed to the way they are today. The 18th was a par 5 finishing in front of the clubhouse, and there was no water hazard around the green. That was only added in the 1980s.

Kirby sold his firm to Golden Bear Inc, Jack Nicklaus’ business empire, and worked on European projects for Nicklaus Design, notably the Centenary course at Gleneagles which hosted the 2014 Ryder Cup, and Mount Juliet in Ireland.

His most famous “bucket-list”course design internationally is Old Head in Ireland (on his own, not with Nicklaus), although his personal favourite design is another in Ireland, Castlemartyr inland links near Cork.

Ron Kirby at Old Head in Ireland, his most celebrated design masterpiece.

Player and Kirby did another SA course together, Ruimsig Country Club in Gauteng, which opened in 1986. The 1970s and 1980s were quiet decades for new course projects in this country. Kirby also assisted Denis Barker in the mid-80s with the routing of Selborne, South Africa’s first golf estate, on the KZN South Coast.

The opening par 4 at Ruimsig, with the clubhouse in background.

Gauteng course architect Phil Jacobs, who founded Gary Player Design in 1987 with Gary and Marc Player, was involved at Ruimsig as the clerk of works, overseeing the project for Roodepoort city council. It was a golf and real estate investment for the West Rand community. “Back then the course was out in the country, and it cost R4-million, half of which was for irrigation,” recalled Jacobs, who went on to design 40 courses with Gary Player Design until leaving in 2003. “Ron Kirby was such a nice guy, a delight to work with, and knowledgeable.”

“He was never an ego guy, it was never about him but always about what his clients wanted,” said Irishman Roddy Carr, who helped Kirby get the Old Head commission.

Kirby had strong opinions on the course design and construction industry, and his biggest regret was the proliferation globally of new courses around the turn of the century.

“When I started in the 1960s there were probably 40 courses being built each year in the United States,” he said in an interview on his 80th birthday. “By the 1990s it was 200 a year, and one year there was on average a new course opened every day. We overbuilt because everybody thought they could have these property development courses. You see them now and it doesn’t work. There’s only so many golfers. Building too many courses was the worst thing we did.”

Kirby was also critical of the playability of modern courses for the average golfer. “We made courses too damn tough. You can’t play through all those nests of bunkers. Jack (Nicklaus) agrees with me. What’s wrong with an easy course? Everybody’s getting older and the younger guys can’t afford to play because of the cost of maintaining all those bunkers.

“Gary was the best of the bunch (architects) because he knew where to strategically place bunkers and that one bunker can be good enough.”

Article Search
Search for news articles
Top 100 Course News, Blog
and Feature
Recent news articles
1 Bosch Hoek Golf & Lodge Near… Read more
Joe Knox is not a golf pro… Read more
Louis Oosthuizen’s display at Leopard Creek is… Read more
Homeowners at the Oubaai golf estate in… Read more
The weekend of the SA Open at… Read more
Fancourt have built a new halfway house… Read more
This year is the 25th anniversary of… Read more
An attractive 9-hole course on the remote… Read more
Peter Matkovich has kept himself active as… Read more
Marco Simone was the first purpose-built golf… Read more
More than half of South Africa’s courses… Read more
On a quiet Central Drakensberg road between… Read more
Listed below are all 414 courses affiliated… Read more
Gary Player Country Club will forever be… Read more
The new millennium has seen a remarkable… Read more
Pretoria Country Club has been rated on… Read more
The US Open at Los Angeles Country… Read more
South African Open host Blair Atholl, ranked… Read more
Of all the great tournament venues that… Read more
Augusta National has Amen Corner to describe… Read more
The closure of Beachwood CC in Durban… Read more
Former Sunshine Tour commissioner Arnold Mentz has… Read more
Durban Country Club will be closing their… Read more
Casey Jarvis has become the second youngest… Read more
In South Africa, the Halfway House stop… Read more
Amanzimtoti Country Club was devastated by flooding… Read more
The Garden Route is a popular destination… Read more
Pearl Valley has been judged as having… Read more
Zwartkop Country Club, the 18-hole course owned… Read more
Does any other sport offer as many… Read more
Silver Lakes has asked to be removed… Read more
Mount Edgecombe Country Club is hosting two… Read more
KZN estate Cotswold Downs, at No 52… Read more
There was a change of the guard… Read more
Houghton and Hermanus are two clubs at… Read more
Woodhill continues its phenomenal rise up the… Read more
Having a river flowing through your course… Read more
Atlantic Beach is one of those courses… Read more
Katberg, Orkney and Emfuleni are this year’s… Read more
An exciting project in Mpumalanga is the… Read more
We’re seeing five key changes to the… Read more
The Eastern Cape has been included as… Read more
The Alfred Dunhill Championship is one of… Read more
Royal Johannesburg’s newly renovated West Course was… Read more
Durban Country Club’s iconic short par-4 18th… Read more
Composite courses could become fashionable locally in… Read more
Blair Atholl is an exciting new addition… Read more
Veteran East London Golf Club member Denis Jones… Read more
How would you react if you learned… Read more
Blair Atholl has the longest stretch of… Read more
Amanzimtoti Country Club suffered the most devastation… Read more
Durban Country Club will next year be… Read more
Bryanston Country Club head teaching professional Leigh-Jane… Read more
Work has started on the refurbishment of… Read more
Golf Digest magazine in the United States… Read more
The Sunshine Tour visited 17 of SA’s… Read more
TOP 20 GREENS 1 Fancourt Links, 2… Read more
No 1-ranked Fancourt Links claimed more honours… Read more
Links courses were the big winners in… Read more
Gauteng is endowed with wonderful golf courses,… Read more
Today’s announcement of 20 courses ranked between… Read more
Anyone who has played at Plettenberg Bay… Read more
Woodhill is one of 17 courses in… Read more
Four courses – Reading, Eagle Canyon, Centurion… Read more
Two new entrants to the Top 100… Read more
Such has been the huge amount of… Read more
The new year ushered in great excitement… Read more
The 2022 Top 100 Course Rankings will… Read more
It was 30 years ago this January-February… Read more
Christiaan Burke, this year’s scoring sensation in… Read more
In recent years golfers have experienced more… Read more
Ian Leach, a doyen of golf club… Read more
They do not count as criteria when… Read more
Following the oddest year in major championship… Read more
From Plettenberg Bay in the east to… Read more
Veteran Western Province golfer Greg Woodbridge gave… Read more
In a high-profile appointment, Meyer du Toit,… Read more
Fancourt in the Garden Route is acknowledged… Read more
After an innovative, lengthy and suspenseful week… Read more
Golfers in the greater Gauteng region are… Read more
South Africa’s collection of bushveld courses are… Read more
Big positional swings are a feature of… Read more
Three of the new entrants into the… Read more
My 61-day Road Trip visiting 70 courses… Read more
Cash prizes for holes-in-one are being offered… Read more
The design of the standard golf cart… Read more
Zimbali Lakes has been an anticipated golf… Read more
Highland Gate was a popular venue for… Read more
It’s not fashionable today but there was… Read more
The Humewood links in Port Elizabeth has… Read more
A countdown has begun to the announcement… Read more
Irene Country Club elected its first female… Read more
The Top 100 Courses website has a… Read more
I’m on a road trip around South Africa aiming to complete visiting… Read more
The PGA of South Africa announced its… Read more
Pinnacle Point have done it again and… Read more
Gary Player Country Club will become the… Read more
St Francis Links has introduced a great… Read more
Big changes are taking place at South… Read more
Colin Nel at the weekend became the… Read more
ENVIRONMENTAL AWARD FOR ST FRANCIS LINKS During… Read more
The golfing members at Irene Country Club… Read more
While golf has happily resumed, with most… Read more
One of South Africa’s iconic golf courses,… Read more
GolfRSA today received the green light for… Read more
Golf courses around South Africa serve as… Read more
The golf industry will need to adapt… Read more
GolfRSA is making every effort to ensure… Read more
South African golf courses today are increasingly… Read more
PGA professional John Dickson spends most of… Read more
One of the stated 10 keys to… Read more
The national lockdown over the coronavirus has… Read more
David Melman is the Golf Manager at… Read more
Golf clubs have been issued with lengthy… Read more
There are a handful of golf courses… Read more
When the idea of a Top 100… Read more
Silver Lakes Golf & Wildlife Estate in Pretoria has been named one… Read more
Golf participation in South Africa would appear to be increasing, with Handicap… Read more
Serengeti Estates in Ekurhuleni has created one… Read more
Intimidating and challenging closing holes help create… Read more
Umhlali Country Club in Ballito on the… Read more
Erinvale Country Estate & Golf Club is… Read more
The Links at Fancourt and Leopard Creek… Read more
It’s a magical scoring barrier everywhere in… Read more
Royal Johannesburg & Kensington will make history… Read more
FIND A TOP 100 COURSE