There has been a certain amount of grumbling — justified or not — about how some European Tour courses play too easy, most notably in 2019 when Rory McIlroy criticized the playability at the Renaissance Club in North Berwick, Scotland, which has hosted the Scottish Open since 2019.
“I don’t think the courses are set up hard enough,” McIlroy told reporters at the time after the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, also played in Scotland. “There are no penalties for bad shots.
“I don’t feel like good golf is regarded as well as it could be. It happened in the Scottish Open at Renaissance. I shot 13-under and finished 30th [actually tied for 34th] again. It’s not a good test. I think if the European Tour wants to put forth a really good product, the golf courses and setups need to be tougher.”
Other players soon voiced similar concerns. Ernie Els of South Africa said he agreed “100 percent” with McIlroy. “European Tour flagship tournaments and other top events need to be ‘major’ tough. Test the best!” Els said on Twitter.
Edoardo Molinari of Italy, a three-time winner on the DP World Tour, said on Twitter: “Good shots must be rewarded and bad shots must be punished … it is that simple!”.
Now, either from player input or owners simply making improvements, several courses have made changes in Europe and the United States, including the Renaissance Club, which is hosting the Scottish Open for the fourth time starting on Thursday.
Padraig Harrington of Ireland, a three-time major winner who recently consulted with the course architect Tom Doak, admits it may have played easy at first.
“The first year had low scoring, but that was because the European Tour didn’t know the golf course,” Harrington said about the initial year the club hosted the tournament. “They went very easy on the setup. That’s when the Renaissance Club’s owner, Jerry Savardi, said, ‘Let’s toughen up this course.’”
Players like McIlroy were reacting to how officials set up the course for the tournament, Doak said. Consider the weather.
“They’ve played the tournament there three years, and they’ve not had a normal weather year once,” he said. “It’s only been windy one or two days out of 12. It’s normally a windy place, it’s just like Muirfield next door. The conditions make a big difference.
“But we don’t control the weather. You can’t build a links course and tighten it up so that it’s hard in benign conditions, because then when it’s windy the course is impossible to play. You have to have some leeway. So we’re going slow with the changes. We don’t want to overact.”
Most of the changes have been incremental.
“The last two or three years we’ve mostly done little tweaks — fairway bunkers and contouring,” Doak said. “We’re just working around the margins. When I first designed the course [in 2008], we were just going to host an event once. You don’t really design for a one-time event, I design for member play.
“But when you’re going to host a tournament on a repeated basis, then you need to think about the core function of the golf course and what we want to do differently because of that.”
They’ve also let the rough grow. “We’re trying to get the rough rougher,” he said.
The addition of fairway pot bunkers [deep with high side walls] far from the tee should present an increased challenge for players by forcing them to think more carefully about their shots and strategy, Doak said.
“We never really thought about it when the course was first built,” he said. “I just never worried about players carrying 300 yards. But now a bunch of them can.”
Other more significant changes were considered, like changing greens, or making them smaller.
“It would be really difficult to change a green and get it back to the right condition before the next tournament.” Doak said. He is waiting to see how the course plays in more normal weather conditions. “Then we’ll see if we keep going with changes, or if we’re good where we are.”
Harrington, who won the United States Senior Open last month, approached the changes from a player’s point of view.
“As a player, you want those changes right now,” he said. “In a perfect world, all golf courses evolve. Golf courses are always changing. But you have to go slowly with these changes, and you can’t go into it making it tougher for the sake of making it tougher.
“We’ve made subtle changes to separate the field a little bit,” Harrington said. “You have to make your golf course a stern test.
“I love to punish the guy who doesn’t take it on, or chickens out and bails. But nobody wants to stop a player from playing well. We want to encourage them to play well, tease them, and ask them to hit more great shots. But we’re going to punish you if you take a shot and miss it.”
Harrington also underscored how the changes will force players to more carefully select their shots.
“We more clearly defined the penalties, and if a player wants to take them on, great,” he said. “But they separate the winner from the guy who finishes 10th. If you’re not playing well, there’s a lot of danger. But if you’re playing well, you’ll get rewarded.
The goal of Savardi, the club’s owner. was simple. “I want a course that rewards the good shots, and punishes the bad ones,” he said. “No matter what the weather is.”
Yet Savardi still has an eye on the weather.
“The greens are bone dry, and our fairways are rock hard,” he said. “If the weather stays like this, this place is going to be on fire.”