Renaissance Man: The stars align, allowing me to play one of Scotland’s most exclusive golf clubs
On more than one occasion, usually when she’s slaving away at her laptop and I’m on my way out the door en route to a golf course, my lovely and charming wife has been known to exclaim: “I want your life!”
Now, the wise man always agrees with his beloved, even when…ahem…she’s wrong. As one of my Scottish friends puts it, “Happy wife, happy life.” But, in this case, she gets no argument from me. For while I have a day job that, by definition, means doing things I must do to generate the income I need to underwrite my stay in Scotland, it’s rarely so all-encompassing that it prevents me from pursuing my heart’s desires. Which, as you could easily deduce, most often involves this game we all love.
A classic case in point arose last week, when I received an email and then a phone call from Eamonn Kennelly, owner and operator of Golf Vacations Ireland and a friend since my American golf buddies and I first engaged his services in 2000. Eamonn had a bit of a problem and wondered if I might be able to help him solve it. Due to some unspecified change of plans, one of his clients—a 12-man entourage from Washington state on tour of several top-notch links courses in Scotland—had an opening to play an additional round and found themselves at the upstart Renaissance Golf Club, where they would be the guests of a member. But the Americans wanted to play the round as three four-balls, which left the member on his own.
That’s where I came in. Eamonn wondered if I could join the member as a two-ball, playing ahead of the 12. After about a nanosecond of reflection, I calmly replied, “Yes.” Actually, the inner commentary was more along the lines of, “Are you kidding me!? What’s the catch? There’s gotta be a catch.”
But as Eamonn laid out the details, it became clear there was no catch. I was going to get to play one of the most exclusive clubs in Scotland—with a member—and all it was going to cost me was the diesel fuel required for the hour’s drive to get me there. It might not have been the equal of winning the lottery. But, given my golf-skewed value scale, it was pretty darn close.
Golf for the 1-Percenters
The Renaissance Club had been on my radar screen since I’d learned that it was the first Scottish layout devised by Tom Doak, the renowned if also somewhat controversial American course designer. In 2001, I had the opportunity to meet Doak during a press preview of one of his masterpieces—Pacific Dunes at the fabulous Bandon Dunes resort along the Oregon coast. At the time, the publisher of his groundbreaking and feather-ruffling book, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, had also entered into a book contract with me and a golf-writing friend of mine (the late lamented Ham ‘n’ Egg on Golf). I’ve been a fan of the man and his work ever since.
Also intriguing was the club’s location, situated in East Lothian’s Archerfield Estate between North Berwick and Muirfield. In fact, you can catch a glimpse of some of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’ playground from this newcomer. Golf-wise, this is a decidedly upscale neighborhood.
So it was with the joy of a child on Christmas morning that I guided my Volvo estate past the imposing iron gates leading to the Renaissance Club’s upmarket clubhouse. Inside, I was greeted by a member of the staff who guided me to my locker for the day, emblazoned with my name. After settling in, I climbed a flight of stairs to the take in the panoramic view of the course set against the Firth of Forth while I awaited everyone else’s arrival.
Blue skies adorned with puffs of white. A zepher of a breeze. No rain in in sight. So this is how the 1-percenters live, I thought.
A Yankee Invasion
Soon, though, my reverie was interrupted by a commotion in the entryway. The Americans had arrived on a tour bus fit for a group three times their size. I, however, gravitated to their host, David, aka the member. In short order, the visitors made their way to the practice range so they could warm up by hitting an endless supply of Titleist Pro V-1s and sort out their caddies and buggies.
David and I, meanwhile, calmly trolleyed over to the first tee and got on with it. If only the course had continued with the gentle start. But that was not to be, not with an opening of two healthy par 4s and a par 5, all with stroke indexes in single digits.
Some folks describe the Renaissance Club as a links. But, from the get-go, it was very clearly not that. Doak carved most of the layout out of 300 acres of dense pine forest, retaining stands of the original trees for strategic and aesthetic purposes. Also, the terrain is generally flat, interspersed with gentle rises and hollows. As such, on most holes, there’s plenty of room off the tee and easy walks along the fairways.
Then you arrive at the green complexes…and the gloves come off.
The politically correct one-word description of the putting surfaces? Challenging. The less delicate choice: infuriating. To put it another way, just because you manage to put your ball on the green does not mean a 2-putt is forthcoming. A bit like Augusta National (one of the many top drawer courses that David, a transplant from Northern Ireland, has had the opportunity to play), you must be on the right spot on the green relative to the hole to have a realistic shot at par, let alone birdie. The members who play multiple rounds here can learn such nuances. But for interlopers like myself, who are fortunate enough to get one shot, it’s likely to be a very frustrating experience with the flat stick.
Beyond the Score
The key, then, is to set aside the numbers on the scorecard and focus on the Renaissance Club’s other fine attributes. Such as turf that’s groomed to a high standard of nick. And the natural pace of play on—what often feels like—your own personal golf course. And this course’s unique blend of parkland, heathland and links-like characteristics. Doak refers to it as a hybrid.
The links label is especially true of the 9th, 10th and 11th holes—added four years after the club’s opening in 2008—that take you out along the cliffs that overlook the Firth. My personal favorite is the 10th, a right-to-left bender of a par-4 that tempts you to bite off a bit more than you can chew from the tee. But nae bother. Even if your ball winds up on the beach, you’re guaranteed of your best shot of the day here…with your smartphone’s camera, that is.
Also entertaining are the remains of a dry stone dyke that pop up at various points along your journey, most dramatically when it bisects the 18th fairway. It reminded me of the wall that winds its way around North Berwick’s West Links. Fun stuff.
Back to Reality
After the round, David—who lives within walking distance of the club—invited me in for a bite to eat and a bit of conversation. Add those to the list of wonders that await you should the stars align. Though I would have preferred to linger in this lap of luxury, that pesky day job inevitably beckoned.
So I bid my gracious host adieu and returned to a reality that, if I’m honest with myself, isn’t exactly hard duty. Yet, with the memory of my unlikely morning at the Renaissance Club still fresh, I now know it could be even better.
Just don’t tell my wife that!