Building friendships, courses

All in a life's work for Beverly's Kirby

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / May 22, 2008

Rarely is a stop in paradise considered a steppingstone and not utopia, but such has been the route traveled by Ron Kirby. From childhood days in Beverly to all corners of the world, his life has been filled with great golf, not to mention dirt from some of the sport's most impressive courses.

"No doubt," said Kirby, "it's been a hell of a ride."

Nothing says that it's over, either, because at age 75, the onetime greenskeeper remains a vibrant figure in the world of golf course architects. He will return to one of his many adopted homes, Ireland, to spend June and work on "a couple of new projects," and there may be need for a trip to Copenhagen, where he has another course under construction. It's all great fun, said Kirby, whose talents have helped build courses in a lengthy list of countries - from Ireland and Japan, to South Africa and Barbados, to Italy and France, to Denmark and Germany, to Spain and Austria.

"But nothing in Mexico or Canada," he said, with a laugh. "Those were too close to home."

Home being an open-ended concept, for Kirby and his wife, Sally, have affections and ties for many areas, from North Palm Beach, Fla., where they settle down these days, to London, Monte Carlo, and Atlanta, all of which have served as his base of operations. But for all time, Beverly will be Kirby's true home. That is where he grew up and it's where he went to school. He played for Beverly High School's state champion golf team in 1949 and served as captain the following season, and for so many formative years Kirby chose to spend large chunks of his time at what was then called the United Shoe Golf and Country Club (now Beverly Golf and Tennis Club).

"I was a caddie, then a caddie master," said Kirby. "Then I worked on the maintenance staff. It was predetermined that I'd go to the [University of Massachusetts] Stockbridge School, get out, and become superintendent."

His father was a golf professional and was more than willing to steer his son in the direction of the sport. But if he needed even further incentive, Kirby got it that night in 1950 when he was among the dozen or so honored as the second group of winners from the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund.

"I went into the Parker House and met Mr. Ouimet," said Kirby. "That was a thrill."

Kirby came away from that night convinced he could make a career in golf, but first came the Korean conflict and a three-year stint in the Coast Guard. That obligation taken care of, Kirby returned to Beverly and worked first at United Shoe, then up at Petersham CC, a Donald Ross design that had opened in the 1920s. What came with the job at Petersham was an opportunity to work winters in a machine shop, but Kirby's father suggested something else.

"He said, 'Head to Florida and cut greens,' so I did," said Kirby, who considers that decision a career turning point.

It was in the Florida sunshine one winter in the 1950s when he met architect Dick Wilson and his crew, which led to the chance to set up in paradise. That is, Paradise Island in the Bahamas. There was a golf course project going on as part of millionaire Huntington Hartford's grand plan for a luxurious resort and Kirby was extended an opportunity to be part of it. It meant that Kirby would quit his job at Petersham and that he and Sally would settle into an island life. Memorable times, for sure, but the weather and the sights weren't the best part.

No, the greatest benefit was meeting the golf professional who became associated with the club - Gary Player.

"We became great friends," said Kirby. "We'd talk all the time about golf courses and we always agreed that we'd someday work together."

They did, too, but not until 1970, when they formed the Kirby-Player Co.

The years leading into that association were spent building the golf course on Paradise Island (1960-63), then seven years based in Atlanta working for the legendary Robert Trent Jones Sr.

"When he hired me, he asked me if I was ready to travel," said Kirby. "I told him I loved to travel."

There were courses in various countries, so off went Kirby, learning by a man he considers a master. "A genius at routings," said Kirby. "He got more out of a piece of ground than anyone."

When the time came to move on and join forces with Player, who by 1970 was a 35-year-old determined to maintain an active playing career while still setting up outside interests, Kirby was asked one question by the major champion. "He said, 'Have you learned enough?' " said Kirby.

Indeed, Jones had provided great mentoring and alongside Player, Kirby achieved countless opportunities throughout the world until another unique chance came along. Jack Nicklaus's design company in 1986 needed to beef up its staff in Europe and Kirby answered the call. As Player had done, Nicklaus brought a player's perspective to golf-course design, but what impressed Kirby the most was the great champion's commitment to his endeavors.

"Jack would say about all the close detail he'd pay to, say, a bunker, 'Why wouldn't you want to have the best?' " said Kirby.

By the early 1990s, Kirby chose to slow down a bit. He knew he had heart issues (he would have bypass surgery in 1995), so he decided to work part time for Nicklaus, part time for himself. Through mutual acquaintances he was introduced to legendary Irish amateur star Joe Carr, who was involved with one of the breath-taking layouts in the world, the course at Old Head Golf Links in Kinsale, Ireland. Kirby became part of the design team for what is considered one of the world's greatest links.

Each of the last two springs, Kirby has returned to his Ouimet Scholar roots. He attended the 58th annual banquet a year ago when Nicklaus was honored and he was there to see Player get saluted Monday night. The latest trip afforded him a chance to revisit Fenway Park, to visit some museums, to reacquaint himself with his native state, but before long, Kirby will have the boots back on and the walks will again commence.

"That's the good thing," he said, acknowledging that at 75 he needs to keep busy. "You do a lot of walking in this business."

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