The Scottish Open has been fabulously reimagined in recent years and is now one of the most prestigious events on the European Tour. However, there is a risk that today's decision to take it to the exclusive Renaissance Club in East Lothian will undermine that progress.
For the first decade of this century, the event was held at the magnificent Loch Lomond - a wonderful course, but not the best test for players wanting to hone their links game a week before the Open.
When Loch Lomond got into financial troubles, the event moved to the newly opened Castle Stuart for the next three years and the field immediately praised the move to a links course. The course was wonderfully photogenic, great fun to play and didn't beat the players up the week before a sterner test at The Open. Soon, players were waxing lyrical about the event and when Phil Mickelson won there in 2013, before driving down and winning at Muirfield the following week, many thought the ideal formula had been found.
The sponsors, Aberdeen Asset Management, and co-promoters, the Scottish Government, then had the great idea of taking the event on the road. The idea was to showcase the best links courses in Scotland, starting with Royal Aberdeen in 2014. Gullane followed in 2015 before they headed back to Castle Stuart in 2016 and on to Dundonald last year.
Even though links courses abound in Scotland, their ability to host professional events is hampered by the lengths players hit the ball these days. I wrote further about the impact on our courses here but, in a nutshell, courses like Western Gailes and North Berwick would just be over-powered. And, given the space constraints, they might both also struggle with the logistics of holding an event of this scale. There has been talk of Cruden Bay hosting but there is concern about what changes would have to be made to lengthen the course enough to make it a viable option.
If truth be told, the event probably suffered a little last year in Dundonald. The Kyle Philips course is perfectly pleasant but long-term event supporter Phil Mickelson said that he didn't really fancy learning a new layout and the course didn't win many rave reviews.
All this means that the options for future Scottish Open host courses are limited. Gullane, Castle Stuart and Royal Aberdeen work well but other choices all come with challenges. For example, Royal Dornoch would be amazing but is probably too isolated and Trump International would come with too much controversy. Aberdeen Standard Investment CEO Martin Gilbert said in the Scotsman last year of the Trump Aberdeen option 'Politics aside, Trump would be an ideal venue, but you can’t put politics aside.'
On many levels the move to the Renaissance course makes sense. It is close to Edinburgh and transport links are good, the course has lots of space for visitors and infrastructure and was built with tournament golf in mind so won't be over-powered by the modern player.
But on certain other levels it just doesn't feel right.
Firstly, the turf here doesn't play like a links course. Castle Stuart managed to get it right pretty much from day one and Gullane has the advantage of centuries of play. But for whatever reason, the turf at the Renaissance doesn't run like those. Maybe it will in the decades to come, but I suspect the players will be disappointed with what they find as an Open warm-up.
Secondly, Tom Doak is a great architect but I haven't heard the Renaissance described anywhere as his best work. Indeed in his 'Confidential' series he gives it a 'Doak 7’ while his collaborators give it a 6. The course itself is a bit of a slog in places and, while the carries won't bother the pros, it isn't like anything you will find on an Open rota course. Doak has come up with some wild greens which will make for some frustrated golfers at times - again, not like much you'll find on an Open course.
Thirdly, this is second only to Loch Lomond in the whole of Scotland when it comes to exclusivity. You can only play the Renaissance Course once in your life unless you are invited by a member. Yes, you read that right - once in your life. The whole place is cloaked in a veil of opulence and exclusivity. At a time when there is so much talk of growing the game, it seems a real shame that the Scottish Government (who are still invested in the tournament through Visit Scotland) and Aberdeen Standard Investments feel that it is appropriate to play here.
Alex Salmond writes in his book about why they didn't take the Scottish Open to the Renaissance Course before. He said, 'It is reasonably certain that Martin (Gilbert) has come under a fair bit of pressure to take the tournament further along the coast to Renaissance, the new and hugely impressive development near North Berwick, but at £100,000-a-whack for family membership it would not communicate an ideal message about Scottish golf being open to all'.
The Renaissance course seems to just want to be a plaything for the uber-rich. It does nothing at all for the local community - local charities and school fundraisers all benefit from Archerfield and Gullane but the Renaissance never get involved.
Stewart Duff, Course Manager at Gullane talked to me recently about how great it is to have the Scottish Open this year starting and finishing in the heart of the village. You can see it as you drive into Gullane and it puts the community firmly at the heart of the event. .
My worry is that there is a risk that the quality of the field will suffer at the Scottish Open when players realise the course isn't going to give them a good links test the week ahead of the Open; the fans won't be bothered to attend a course that has done nothing to introduce itself to the golfing community of Scotland; and the event will be diminished as a result.
I really do hope I'm wrong but this is a real gamble to take. I hope the benefits are worth this risk.