The Genesis Scottish Open Rises in Stature

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The Renaissance Club, the site of the Genesis Scottish Open that begins on Thursday, looks like it’s been there for hundreds of years, like so many other great links courses in Britain.

Like all true links courses, it winds along the coast with few trees; wind, rain, heat and cold become issues for players. It has firm fairways that can kick a well-hit drive forward an extra 50 yards or punish an equally well-struck shot with an unlucky bounce.

The course has high golden fescue grass that waves in the wind. Brown-tinged greens undulate subtly in the center and strikingly on the edges. And of course, deep bunkers swallow balls careening toward their targets.

It’s in the best neighborhood in town for golf. Muirfield, home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and regular host of the British Open, abuts the course. And down the road is North Berwick Golf Club, where the sport has been played since 1832.

But the Renaissance Club, now in its fifth year of hosting the Scottish Open, opened in 2007 after two American brothers developed the club. The tournament course is the product of an extensive renovation in 2014, which opened up some of the holes with views of the water.

Yet its architect, Tom Doak, is not known for building courses that host professional golf championships. This was his first.

So how did the Renaissance Club come to host a tournament that has been growing in importance? (It offers entry into the British Open for players who place in the top five spots, and it is sanctioned by the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour, meaning more money and ranking points.)

The change began in 2011 with a broader strategy to play on conditions that would approximate the British Open often held a few days later. The Scottish Open had been around, off and on and under various sponsors, for about 50 years at that point.

The organizers partnered with Visit Scotland, the country’s tourist board, to find venues that would also capture a tourist’s imagination. While Scotland has a variety of topography for its golf courses, Scottish golf conjures up images of wind-ripped, bouncy courses.

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“We kicked off a links strategy in 2011 and decided to move from Loch Lomond to Castle Stuart,” said Rory Colville, the Genesis Scottish Open championship director. “We decided that it was in the players’ best interest to play links golf the week before the Open Championship. The economic benefit of the first Scottish Open at Castle Stuart was said to be in excess of 5 million pounds [about $6.3 million]. That’s a really positive thing.”

Loch Lomond, which had hosted the tournament for more than a decade, was a parkland course on an estate with streams and trees that dated back centuries. It’s ranked as one of the best courses in the world. But its trees and streams don’t conjure up the same images of Scottish golf.

Castle Stuart, like the Renaissance Club, is a modern course built to look like it has been on the land forever. The difference was in the design team.

Opened in 2009, it was designed by Gil Hanse, an American architect who restored courses for the United States Open and the P.G.A. Championship, including Los Angeles Country Club and Southern Hills in Oklahoma. On Castle Stuart, Hanse worked with Mark Parsinen, who found the land, to build a course in the Highlands with wide vistas, firm fairways and deep bunkers.

“Although at the time Castle Stuart was a relatively young golf course, it highlighted all you would want from a new links course as a venue,” Colville said. “It was a fair test of golf, but it was also the right type of test in the warm-up to the Open,” in that it was not set up to be overly penalizing.

“Players don’t want to get beaten up going into a major championship,” he said. “Castle Stuart was the right type of golf course. Also, it had this fantastic scenic setting to showcase golf to the world. It was a really rewarding experience to take the Scottish Open up to the Highlands.” And it produced solid champions: Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson and Alex Noren.

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The strategy in those years was to use a rota, or schedule, of courses akin to what the British Open does in moving the championship to a set number of venues. For the Scottish Open, these included Royal Aberdeen, Gullane and Dundonald.

“We had an exceptional experience at Royal Aberdeen,” Colville said about the tournament in 2014. “Justin Rose won there in great style. Rory McIlroy played there and went on to win the Open the week after that.”

Gullane had the advantage of being close to the capital, Edinburgh, which increased the number of spectators.

But top players balked at a rota before the official Open Championship rota. It meant they would potentially have to learn a new course each year. There were also economic reasons to host an event at the same stop with the same infrastructure planned out.

“At Loch Lomond, we built an event year after year,” Colville said. “We needed to find a home to make it the scale it needs to be. That’s tricky when you’re looking at a member club, with a larger number of members who don’t want the annual interference of golf course closure and interruption of their day to day golfing.”

The Renaissance Club had been founded by the brothers Jerry and Paul Sarvadi. Paul is the chief executive of Insperity, a human resources company, and Jerry spent his career in aviation fuel.

On the club’s 10th anniversary in 2018, Paul Sarvadi talked about his commitment to continuing to host the Scottish Open. “While proud of our first 10 years, we are even more excited about our next 10 years,” he said.

Colville said the brothers had a passion to create a home for the Open.

“They’ve built a long-term TV compound and parking facilities,” he said. “They’ve built the infrastructure that makes it feasible to hold the event year after year. They’ve made it a viable event.”

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They’ve also allowed tinkering to the course. “Our agronomy team has worked very closely with the club to improve the conditions and refine the golf course.”

Doak, who declined to comment, is better known for designing destination venues on remarkable plots of land, like Barnbougle in Tasmania, Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand and Pacific Dunes in Oregon. He has largely eschewed commissions or restorations of courses that will host tournaments.

“I never really thought I’d do tournament golf courses,” he told the Golf Channel in 2019. When asked what he did to create a course tough enough for the professionals, he added, “It’s a little bit getting inside their heads. You want to do things that make them think and make them play a little safe.”

Since the Renaissance Club course was renovated in 2014, Doak has been less involved in year-to-year changes. The ownership group brought in Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion and past Ryder Cup captain, to consult on the course from a tournament player’s perspective.

“You get the perspective of someone with his links credentials to help refine the golf course and improve it,” Colville said. “He’s added some subtle design features to make the rough more penal and changed a lot of the fairway cut lines.”

In the five years since the course began hosting the event, the Scottish Open has achieved elevated status with its sanctioning by the PGA and DP World tours. It has secured Genesis, the luxury-car company, as a title sponsor.

And the field has grown stronger. Last year’s champion, Xander Schauffele, was the fifth-ranked player in the world after his victory.

“We expect to be the best attended Scottish Open this year, with more than 70,000 spectators,” Colville said.

“This year we have eight of the top 10 players in the world. That’s a vote of confidence that they like the golf course and like the facilities.”

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