The first time GCA visited the Renaissance Club was in the spring of 2006, when the course was in the relatively early stages of construction, with playing corridors cleared and a few greens shaped, but no grass on the course.
Even at this point, it was clear that the property, though perhaps not hugely dramatic except in a few places, had the potential to make an excellent golf course, especially with one of the world's most highly-regarded design teams at work on it. Tom Doak's company, Renaissance Golf Design, may not have worked in the UK before, but Doak's affection for British golf, and links golf in particular, has long been recorded.
Eighteen months on, the course is essentially finished. OK, some bunkers still need sand, and the clubhouse/lodge is a building site, but during Open week in July there were a number of founder and prospective members out playing the golf course. Director of golf Stewart Smith, newly arrived at the Renaissance Club having just overseen the opening of the Carrick course on Loch Lomond (GCAs passim) on behalf of DeVere Hotels, took us round. On a rare sunny day in this benighted British summer, it wasn't hard to understand why would-be members were keen to lay down their joining fee of US$75,000 or £37,500.
The location of the Renaissance Club, right next to the far end of Muirfield and within a few miles of Gullane, Luffness and North Berwick, would lead one to expect a traditional Scottish links. And, in many ways, that is what the course most closely resembles, with its humpy fairways, springy fescue turf and nasty revetted pot bunkers (of which more later). But anyone who had seen the property in its pre-construction state, when, as part of the former estate of the Dukes of Hamilton, it was covered in pine trees, would testify, it didn't look much like a links in those days.
What is not open for debate is the sandy soil that covers the property. Sand, the golf architect's best friend, means features can be used or created without great concern about drainage, often the number one priority on heavier soils. It means there is no need to import materials to construct features or even greens. And it means that a beautiful sward of fine grasses can be grown and maintained without excessive use of water or chemicals, making the course costeffective both to build and to maintain.
A wander around the Renaissance Club shows a golf course that may not yet officially be open, but which looks as though it has been there for many years.
One of the issues that makes the course look less links-like is the fact that the Firth of Forth is only in view from a relatively small proportion of the holes.
Wandering around the property, though, an observer cannot help but see a pristine patch of sand dunes, right by the water's edge, below what has become the twelfth hole. These dunes are part of a larger system that belongs to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
Late in the planning process – indeed after detailed planning consent for the course had been granted, developer Jerry Sarvadi was approached by the Honourable Company, and offered a trade: exchange a strip of your land that abuts our property, and we will sell you some of the dunes by the shore. A deal that couldn't be refused, you might think, but of course there was a snag. To put holes in those dunes would require further planning permission, and the planning process would delay construction by months, or even years.
Thus the course has been built as originally planned, bypassing what is surely the best land for golf on the property. But architect Doak has kept the possibility of going down to the dunes very much in mind, and has routed the course to allow for a selection of holes to be taken out of play to accommodate any new ones. "The trick to the routing was to leave open the possibility of adding in a couple of holes in the duneland later if we can get permits," he told GCA. " Thus there is a three-hole loop (one-three) and a two-hole loop (four and five) at the beginning, either of which would become practice holes if the additional holes were approved." These five holes occupy the flattest and least interesting land. But they are far from dull, for all that. The second, for example, is a brutally tough par three, playing 257 yards from the back markers.
Holes four and five, which share a field, are separated by a line of three bunkers, and the fourth green is banked attractively into a large pile of earth, presumably an old spoil heap. Sounds nothing special, but the shaping work is terrific, and the player can use the upslope on the left of the green to receive an approach shot – but pull the ball a little too far and a scary downhill chip awaits.
From the sixth on, though, the land becomes more interesting. The seventh hole has a wonderful greensite atop a ledge. Either this is natural (I think it is) or it is a phenomenal piece of construction. The eighth is a fine short par four, 334 yards at its longest but not much over 300 yards from the sets of tees most players will use. Short it may be, but the clever green – inspired, Doak says, by the twelfth at St Andrews with its high middle tier – will make threes hard to come by and fours less straightforward than one might expect.
Right in front of the clubhouse, the ninth is a pretty par three, only 148 yards from the championship tees. This wide dispersion of hole lengths is surely deliberate, and is pleasing to see on what can play an extremely long golf course.
Sarvadi and his partners have hopes of attraction significant events to the Renaissance Club, and, to accommodate such competitions, Doak has built the course to a length of 7,435 yards with a par of 71 (the back nine stretches to 3,881 yards).
And it's the back nine that contains most of the great holes to be found on the course. The 593-yard tenth hole has a green the like of which few will have seen on a modern golf course. A large mound blocks off the right hand side of the green, creating an almost punchbowl-like effect, on that side at least. Given firm turf, a flag set on that side will prove elusive. "The tenth is probably my favourite green on the course," says Doak.
"It was actually suggested by my friend John Ashworth who had done his own routing for the property years ago, and it's the one hole on our course we borrowed from his. The high-shouldered approach will be very tricky, rewarding placement of the second shot while making things difficult for the strong player who might reach the green in two, so I think it's the perfect green site for a par five where it would have been much less interesting (or less fair to most people's minds) as the green site for a par four." The following hole will be no less controversial. A par four measuring 514 yards (!) from the tournament tees, although the rest of the markers are much further forward, it features one of the most severely sloping greens I have ever seen.
The rise from front to back is massive: I wasn't able to get an accurate measurement, but it certainly seemed to be greater than my six foot two height.
Director of golf Smith avoided my questions about it for a while, but I could sense his unease, and he finally admitted he feared it may prove too severe. Doak's explanation, though, makes a lot of sense.
"We're becoming famous (or infamous) for building at least a couple of severe greens on our courses, and I learned from my travels in the UK that the best place to put them is on the longest par fours, where many players are trying to get up and down for par anyway," he says. "There's no sense in having a boring chip to a big flat green, and it's a great way to separate the men from the boys! The only debate was whether the green speeds would be too much for the general slope of the green. Fortunately the prevailing wind is from the west, so blowing uphill on that green, which lessens the impact of the slope." Around the back of the green, an old ruined drystone wall has been left, which provides an attractive visual backdrop for the player (and may help slightly with depth perception) – but woe betide the golfer who runs up against the wall! It's not till the twelfth hole that the Forth comes fully into view, and with it the duneland acquired from Muirfield.
Twelve is another strong par four, but the golfer will surely be distracted from the hole by the steep escarpment to his left and the beautiful dunes below. They look perfect for golf, but the severity of the slope will present its own difficulties should the addition of holes be approved.
Doak says he has done a number of different routing options incorporating the dunes: it will be fascinating to see how he handles the scarp if the opportunity arises.
In a Scottish golf landscape that is short neither on classic courses nor on interesting new builds – think of Kingsbarns, the Castle course, the Castle Stuart project near Inverness and the new Machrihanish Dunes development just for starters – the Renaissance Club is a worthy contender. Doak has said that, when he took the project on his expectations for the course were limited, not least by the august company it keeps in East Lothian, but that it has turned out significantly better than he had thought.
Neither truly links nor really inland, the course may defy classification – but it is an example of golf architecture at its most accomplished.