THE RENAISSANCE CLUB - 16 POINTS
It requires a certain chutzpah to take a piece of land tucked between Muirfield and North Berwick - 2 of the greatest links courses in the world - and try to create a course, from scratch, which gets close to the quality of those great tracks. But that was the vision of a wealthy American - Jerry Savardi - and he pulled out all the stops to get the job done.
The architect is Tom Doak. I have really enjoyed reading Doak's works - from his Confidential Golf Guides to The Anatomy of a Golf Course - and I appreciate his philosophy for building golf courses. In his introduction to the The Anatomy of a Golf Course, Ben Crenshaw says, '"It is up to the golf architect to present us with a thinking contest as well as a physical one". That's a great philosophy but I can't help thinking Doak hasn’t quite lived up to that ideal here.
Doak has been quite open that he was asked to design a course which would be suitable for professional championship play and, in the 21st century, that tends to mean one thing - a long and brutal golf course. That, at the heart of it, is the problem I have with The Renaissance Club - it's just too hard for me. There are numerous long carries off the tees (playing a 500 yards+ par 4 into the wind with a long carry over heavy bracken isn't my idea of fun) and, both times I played it, I felt the course was set up for punishment rather than pleasure. I am not alone in this view; some pros I have spoken to don’t talk about the challenge it sets them but the punishing nature of the track. Of course, others love that challenge, but for me it is just too much.
I spoke to Doak just before the Scottish Open was held there in 2019 and he said that he felt the owners had been too penal in their setup of the course and fairway width in recent years. Unless you are deadly straight, prepare to suffer!
The course itself isn't your traditional links setup. The ground is actually quite undulating - especially as you get down to the new holes near the water and into the back 9, and there is a lot of heavy rough in play just off the fairways. The greens are really tricksy, with some huge mounds and positioning your approach shots relative to the pin is vital. The second time I played, some of the flags were really on the edge of acceptability and seemed designed to punish more than challenge!
Three new holes have been added - the 9th, 10th and 11th - which go down to the Firth of Forth and provide some of the spectacular views that the owner no doubt craved, and it would be churlish to deny they are really good additions to the course. The par 10 4th in particular has a wonderful setting. The course was tremendously well presented and there was great attention to detail. There are many architectural features - such as the incorporation of ancient walls - which can be really savoured.
The Renaissance Club had been very clear that it was looking to host a top professional event. Gullane 1 beat it to the Scottish Open in 2015 and a combination of the quality of the turf, the 'traditional' nature of the challenge and the more inclusive nature of the club made that an understandable decision. However, The Renaissance Club became a Final Open Qualifier course from 2018, which increased its profile, and was then rewarded with the 2019 Scottish Open. Players will find a course which provides one of the very sternest tests in UK golf, but I’m not sure they will get a true links experience.
If this course were in many other parts of the the UK, even Scotland, then it would be a 'must play' in the area. But, in East Lothian, you will have far more fun teeing it up on most of the other great local courses, and, for the merely mortal golfer, The Renaissance Club will leave you feeling just too beaten up. If you’re visiting the area many times, you’ll probably want to play it once so you can tick it off your list, but if you are passing through just once it isn't a 'must-play'.
BOOKING THE COURSE
It used to be almost impossible to get a round at The Renaissance. It is now possible, but be prepared for quite a bill. When the Scottish Open was awarded, much was made of the course opening up more to the local community and visitor play. There is no evidence of this to date but they tell me that they will be announcing the plans after the Scottish Open. I’m not holding my breath!
However, they do offer a 'One Time Experience'. It starts from £300 a round, or £480 including accommodation. It's not cheap but at least you can play now, if you really want to.
They have restricted availability to Mondays and Wednesdays and encourage you to stay on the property. They are also keen to remind you on the website that you can only take the ‘one time experience’ once in your lifetime.
The club costs many tens of thousands of pounds to join and only has a few hundred members, so the odds are that you will pretty much have the course to yourself and be treated very well. Caddies are compulsory but, in theory, given the difficulty of the course, and the thickness of the rough, this isn't a bad idea. Ours however was quite abysmal - he gave dodgy yardages, looked in the wrong places for balls and chatted inanely all the way around. He only detracted from our ‘one time experience’.
The clubhouse itself is quite something - apparently £9.2m worth of largesse. The food was good but the atmosphere wasn't particularly welcoming and there were a lot of loud, drunk members there. Perhaps we just got it on an off day.
You are spoilt for choice in East Lothian when it comes to golf. It is possible to stay at The Renaissance Club if you are taking part in the One Time Experience but I think that North Berwick is probably the best place to stay - have a look at the tour tips here. In terms of other courses to play then Muirfield, North Berwick and Gullane Number 1 would be the pick of the crop but there are many other great experiences to be had - Archerfield, Gullane 2 and 3 and Dunbar would all work well on a trip.