The Renaissance Club
Location: GULLANE, EAST LOTHIAN
Designer: Tom Doak
It is 10 years since the modern era’s most iconic architect Tom Doak finished his only course in Britain. Chris Bertram assesses The Renaissance Club in East Lothian, Scotland.
Fame carries with it a heavy weight of expectation in every facet of life but especially in creative genres where success is inevitably subjective. Stellar reputations help secure jobs, contracts and commissions but bring with them an enormous pressure to succeed.
That burden sits on Tom Doak’s shoulders every time a spade enters the ground on his next project, whether that be a new course or a renovation. With a CV embossed by World Top 100 fixtures Barnbougle Dunes, Pacific Dunes and Cape Kidnappers the engaging American must feel the heat with every piece of work.
If you then add into the equation a coastal site in arguably the most well endowed area in the ‘Home of Golf’, the flame rises a little higher. The temperature increases further when the course he built is then named after his own architecture firm. That was the scenario at the end of the last decade when Doak created The Renaissance Club in East Lothian, Scotland. It is the backstory against which the course has been, and will always be judged.
The Renaissance Club is even juxtaposed to storied Muirfield, which Doak believes is one of the world’s elite courses. The 300 acre site was however different from this feted links and indeed the likes of Oregon’s Pacific Dunes and Barnbougle Dunes in Australia.
Previously dominated by sycamores and pines and with little land on the edge of the bluffs, Doak’s task was to maximise the potential of links land.
“That site was not what you might expect in that area,” he explained when we met him in 2017 at Woodhall Spa, whose Hotchkin course he is renovating. “It was very different from other properties in East Lothian because of the trees and lack of dunes, but as well as being sandy, the land had beautiful subtle movement.”
Doak adapted to the task with predictable ease, creating adventurous green complexes to contrast with what is nicely flowing but largely unspectacular terrain. Its agronomy was however more helpful, being covered in the sand that is useless to basically anything other than the kind of fine grass harmonious with the fast-running style Doak champions.
TRC has the look and playing characteristics of other modern links courses such as Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart. A tight-knit but delicate sward that feels properly bedded in a decade after opening. It elicits that enjoyably crisp thud with a compressed iron shot and allows chips to be struck with precision and assurance.
These firm surfaces and the relative lack of bunkers (and obviously no water) at the front of greens, mean the ground game is an option virtually all round. The bunkering feels notably forgiving, affecting usually only those seeking reward for a more expansive tactic rather than the rest of us simply trying to manoeuvre our way round a course that has championship length at 7,300 yards off the tips.
It can however be compressed down to 5,400 without forfeiting nuance; this is the excellence in strategy and flexibility you get for an elite architect’s fee. So, while it is playable for higher handicaps off sensible tees, it hosted the British Boys Amateur Championship and was a Final Qualifying venue for The Open.
When Renaissance first opened it was wider than it was presented when we played, illustrated by discovering a bunker and irrigation head in the rough. The club is now actively restoring that aspect and thus some of the cooler playing angles that were consequently lost.
One of our Top 100 panellists played TRC recently and confirmed width is being proactively added and fescue roughs thinned, with top dressing even being applied over the winter. What hasn’t changed since Doak left are the terrific set of green complexes he bequeathed to TRC, which are as varied as they are entertaining. Our lasting impression of the surfaces was that they generally looked much more severe than they played.
The routing has however altered from when it first opened in 2008. There was always the possibility of land by the Forth being acquired and granted consent during the original routing process, but it was not guaranteed. However when it was secured, from the The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, it was understandably hard to resist incorporating that sort of spectacular landscape, especially as it wouldn’t overtly compromise the routing.
That said, some who played the original course mourn the loss of the opening trio, which are now practice holes. Nevertheless, the three new coastal holes are strong, and getting down by the water in the way they permit undoubtedly adds a welcome dimension.
The new configuration saw the 11th remain the same but become the 8th, with the 9th and 10th fitted into the land beyond that. The old 12th and 13th were taken apart to form a single par 4 that plays to the old 13th green. The 16th was lengthened to a par 5, following on from a new par 3 that was inserted between the old 15th and 16th.
No-one would pinpoint the seams; TRC flows dexterously and with a feeling of space that is notable on opening holes that stretch in different directions through spindly firs. It is a gentle but classy start and the first time the sea is viewed is on the tee of the short 6th. After this the stand-out holes in the opening nine come back-to-back at 7 and 8.
The first is a strong par 5 with an undulating fairway and an obscured approach to a compelling green in the vein of a historic west coast Irish links among big dunes. Tucked on a shoulder behind a wild hump, you’ve got to be bold to hold the green, or everything will kick way left below, leaving a fun but tricky up and down.
Then the epic two-shot dog-leg 8th encompasses a fabulous green, climbing elegantly between a high dune and a tumbling original drystone dyke that Doak has shrewdly incorporated into the experience, along with a lone pine. He has added four bunkers to the idyllic scene.
The first of the new holes, the 9th is a seaward-looking but exacting par 3 to an ‘infinity’ green slouching against a wall before a sporty 4 that plays across the edge of the cliffs but toward a shaggy bank on the other side. The epitome of a strategic hole where angles are everything.
A gentle walk up the hill permits splendid views before tackling another fine par 3. The new long par-4 12th rises to the course’s high point and is followed by an attractive par 5 to a dell green. The new short 15th is followed two holes later by another fine par 3 with a tiered green between hillocks before an exacting finish comprising a drystone dyke, probably a headwind and an undulating green.
Well before this hard-working climax you will have decided if TRC lives up to Doak’s reputation. It might be that you had exaggerated expectations given his notoriety, and if that is the case the quiet excellence of TRC may struggle to live up to them.
But if pre-round forecasts are sensible, it is likely this subtle but stylish modern links will leave most golfers satisfied, and more certain than when they arrived that arguably this era’s outstanding architect can handle the pressure that he has to live with.
To view the Golf World Top 100 Golf Courses in Scotland, click here.
To view the Golf World Top 100 Golf Courses in the UK & Ireland, click here.
How we ranked Renaissance Club
Predictably sensible routing and some brilliant use of the land (and dykes) to create great holes.
The new holes nudge it up a mark or so in this regard, getting down to the water. Tranquil throughout.
A counter to penal links, it has huge elevated greens with tightly-mown run-offs to encourage creativity.
Fabulous conditioning and if you like the look and feel of modern links, this will appeal hugely.
Enough fantastic holes and ‘wow’ moments that are sprinkled about this impressive modern links.
There are some quieter moments that the panel felt kept it from rising higher, but nothing notably weak here.
Super green complexes and a sound routing make most of the gentle linksland. Now a GB&I Top 100 fixture.