In fact the gates are slightly ajar nowadays as they do allow limited visitor play (enquire within) for those wishing to sample this exclusive East Lothian links.
The meet and greet in the car park, the pyramids of complimentary practice Pro V1’s on the driving range and a taster trio of sausages brought out to you by a waiter after departing the fifth green is not really my scene, but I’ll run with it.
Renaissance is geared towards a niche clientele, one that moves in entirely different circles to me, but the welcome is warm and there is a lovely relaxed feel inside the luxurious clubhouse. You are undeniably made to feel like a member during your time on the estate.
Sandwiched between Muirfield and the two courses at Archerfield this is a modern coastal course that comes alive as you near the exceptional and perpetually entertaining green complexes. If, like me, you enjoy playing all different sorts of creative shorts into and around the greens you are going to have a blast here – pleasingly the ball will not stop anywhere close to where it initially lands!
If the greens are running as quickly, and are as glazed, as they were on my visit you will also have plenty of three-putts… but you’ll certainly have a fun time racking them up. Add in some wind, alongside the firm conditions, and you’re going to have to make sure you can play the ground game competently, approach from the correct angle and use the many contours to your advantage. Get it wrong and you could be made to look quite silly.
The course was designed by international golf course architect Tom Doak and opened for play less than a decade ago. Since then the layout has seen three new holes introduced (the current 9th, 10th & 11th) following a land swap with the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. This allowed the adjacent Open Championship venue to extend their ninth tee to meet the demands of 21st Century professional golf for one week every ten years or so. If Muirfield were happy to protect their course from the length that the modern golf ball travels then Renaissance should be ecstatic with what they received in return; a fleeting, but just long enough, encounter with the coastline for a quick loop of three delicious holes.
The first five holes at Renaissance, in a similar manner to the last five, are played over relatively flat terrain so it is important that the green complexes and low level undulations do their job properly… and indeed they do. Green sites at the opening two holes are engaging and although the fourth hole feels a bit lopsided from the tee it has another excellent, this time significantly raised, putting surface.
The beef of the course, the run from the sixth to the 11th, is the most exciting, testing and visually appealing. It also has an increasingly linksy feel and more movement in the land. The upturned nature of the green at the short sixth is both terrifying and taxing in equal measure. The approach into the next is just as perplexing whilst the demanding eighth simply looks the dogs bollocks (not sure if I can say that but I will!) as it climbs gradually up to a green that elegantly slips off a dune ridge on the left; the hole asks you to feed the ball in left-to-right but a pair of sand traps are in close proximity and finding these will leave you with the most delicate of bunker shots to a wild green. A broken stonewall also adds some character to this ball buster of a hole.
The next three – 9, 10 & 11 - are nothing less than a visual feast but they play great too. The Fidra Island and Lighthouse backdrop to the heavenly par-three 9th is mesmerising but the large sloping green is every inch its match. The dropping 11th, also a short hole, looks equally as resplendent and requires a brave shot, and perhaps a dose of good luck, over a deep trap with another dry stone wall running close behind the angled green.
The hole in-between, the 10th, is simply outstanding and is undeniably the jewel in Renaissance’s crown. It requires a long walk back to the tee but it’s worth it because when you turnaround it will send shivers down your spine. A heroic drive is required over the cliff-tops to an angled fairway that slings its way round the coastline to a green falling rapidly to the left. Only the right side of the fairway is visible so for those hitting on the brave line this heightens the tension even more; you know the fairway is out there but you just can’t see it, you’ve simply got to trust your swing. The conservative way of playing this hole should secure a stress-free bogey whilst the more adventurous, going in search of a birdie and a better line into the green, may well be rewarded but could just as easily fall foul of this tremendous golf hole if the execution is not perfect.
The best of the golf has now passed but there is still some good stuff to come. The 14th is an exceptional two-shotter, probably the best hole on the run-in, with a central bunker to negotiate before playing to a green site that screeches of class.
The greens at Renaissance are zany for sure, perhaps a little too much at times, but I’d rather have my golf this way than erring towards the safe side. Chipping and putting becomes a game within a game and recovery shots, one of my favourite aspects of the sport, offer options, variety and risk.
At Renaissance you must often think outside the box when attempting to get your ball as close to the hole as possible and at times the best shot is not one that tracks the flag. Missing in the right place is essential. Missing in the wrong spot will be seriously detrimental to your score. If the course isn’t as strong from the tee as other links of similar ilk it more than makes up for it when playing into and around the greens.
The course isn’t overly wide from the tee, nor is it particularly tight. That said, the rough was beautifully managed on my visit; thin and wispy. A ball was findable and playable but the loss of control meant that there was a premium for staying on the short grass. The rough added extra width and I can only imagine the problems it could cause if it becomes thick and juicy during a hot, wet summer.
The old stonewalls can come into play on a number of holes, they are used interestingly at the fifth and 18th where it’s not impossible to end up right behind them and possibly have to chip out sideways to get back into position.
The rhythm of the course is also a little eccentric and keeps you on your toes. It’s a par 71 with five short holes. After the fifth you don’t play back-to-back far fours again.
A number of established pine trees were removed during construction but you wouldn’t realise it and all the holes feel in harmony with the landscape. Many trees remain and those familiar with Hillside and Formby will have an idea of what to expect. The sound of the Firth of Forth, the smell of Scottish seaside air and glorious views all add up to a wonderful golfing experience.
Renaissance will host the Scottish Seniors Open later this year and in 2018 will stage Final Open Qualifying. There are several sets of tees. From the back tips the course stretches to a mighty 7,293 yards and even on a benign day I dare to think how difficult it will play from this distance into the undulating greens. From the white tees (6,766 yards) or the yellow blocks (6,121 yards) it probably doesn’t matter too much because approaching some of the greens with a wedge compared to a 3-iron is just as testing and truth be told perhaps a little bit more enjoyable with a shorter stick. As you can see there is a big gap between the white and yellow stones, so much so the scorecard has two other total yardages which mix and match the two. And that’s what I’d do - if you have free reign I’d probably pick and choose the different tees.
In my opinion the main thing that will hold Renaissance back from being talked about amongst the real greats, for now anyway, is the newness of the course (it opened in 2008). It was immaculately presented, fast and running, but you can’t buy or create aged turf that has been golfed on for centuries – a factor that elevates a golf course to an entirely different level for me. The ball undoubtedly reacts differently (albeit slightly, but noticeably) on the ground at Gullane, Luffness, Muirfield and North Berwick, to cite examples in this corner of East Lothian, and whilst this may well come at Renaissance we are talking decades if not longer. Now just let me go and find my time machine.