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.
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.
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.
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.”