A 99-year land deal with a Duke, a land swap with Muirfield and the wild story of landing Tom Doak: How an American family built the home of the Genesis Scottish Open


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Jerry Sarvadi always wanted to host a professional golf tournament like his younger brother. But his own golf course? That sounded crazy to him. He ended up achieving both as The Renaissance Club, the course he founded in North Berwick, Scotland, will host the Genesis Scottish Open, a co-sanctioned event between the DP World Tour and PGA Tour, for the sixth time this week.

How an American family ended up building a golf course in the country known as the Home of Golf is part of an immigrant success story that begins with Sarvadi, one of nine children whose parents emigrated from Romania, discovering golf at a young age as a caddie. Sarvadi, 75 started lugging a bag at Aurora Country Club near Cleveland to help the family make ends meet at age 9 and taught himself to play the game. At the time, there were more scholarships in track and field than golf so he focused his attention on running and earned a scholarship to the University of Kentucky. But after his running days ended, golf filled the competitive void. Soon his father created a golf tournament, the Sarvadi Invitational, in 1997, to gather the family together and it grew over the years to a larger gathering held at Pinehurst Resort. In 2002, an associate brought his son-in-law, who happened to work for Jack Nicklaus’s design company and over glasses of wine wondered if they’d want to build a golf course in Scotland?

“And we said, ‘You idiot, that’s crazy. There’s a golf course on every corner there,’ ” Sarvadi recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, but this property is right next to Muirfield.’ And I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He pulled out a map from his back pocket and set it on the table and pointed out where a stone wall separated the property. We all said, ‘Let’s build a golf course in Scotland.’ It was stupid. Then we woke up the next day and forgot all about it.”

But not for long because shortly thereafter, Sarvadi was invited to play Muirfield, the famed British Open site that deserves all of the accolades heaped upon it, on a picture-perfect day and fell in love with Scottish golf. So much so that he arranged to meet the trustees of the neighboring land depicted on the map while he was there. The Renaissance Club sits on 300 acres of rolling land by a stretch of the East Lothian coastline dotted with historic features and offering stunning views of landmarks like Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano near Edinburgh.

Over the next 30 months, Sarvadi made 22 trips to negotiate a deal for the property that would become The Renaissance Club.

“It was all my own money,” said Sarvadi, who had developed a business that became the biggest aviation fuel wholesaler in the U.S. before he sold it. “My wife thought I was crazy. I spent $10,000 on legal fees alone every time I went (to the offices of Biggart Baillie, the solicitors who acted for the landowners). She was right. I am crazy.”

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Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays his second shot on the 13th hole during the final round of the 2023 Genesis Scottish Open at The Renaissance Club. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

But by 2005 he had inked a deal for a 99-year lease with the family of the Duke of Hamilton that owns the land. He raised $12 million, with initial members contributing $250,000 each and agreeing to two conditions.

“One condition was one person was in charge no matter how many units you bought and that person, of course, was me,” he said. “And then the other condition was don’t ask me when you’re going to get your money back because you’re not!’ I said, ‘If you can accept those conditions, you’re in,’ and I stuck my hand out.”

During the planning process, Sarvadi had struck a deal with architect Tom Doak to build the course but by the time Sarvadi was ready to break ground, Doak had more work than he could handle and said he’d have to pass on the job. Sarvadi flew to Traverse City, Michigan, where Doak’s firm, Renaissance Golf, is headquartered, and showed up unannounced.

“He’s sitting at his desk and he looks up to me and says, ‘You’re the first client to ever be at my office,’ ” Sarvadi recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not leaving until you say yes.’ ”

He spent a few days in town playing golf with one of Doak’s associates, including at Crystal Downs, the famed Alister MacKenzie layout, and a few weeks later Doak called him on the phone and said he’d do it under one condition. “He had originally quoted $650,000 for his fee. He said his fee was $850,000 now. I said, ‘I would’ve paid a million’ and hung up the phone,” Sarvadi said.

Doak’s minimalist design opened to rave reviews in 2008. He did some additional work to the course in 2014, and other modifications have been made to get it tournament-ready. Most notably, Sarvadi was able to acquire a plot of land from Muirfield that added a spectacular seaside stretch five years after the course opened using a spit of seven acres. Before he signed the 99-year agreement in 2005, Sarvadi made a side-letter agreement that said if he ever obtained approval to build golf holes on the point, then 47 acres situated within one of the largest primary dunes complexes in the country would become part of the lease for a pound. Muirfield sought a 29-acre plot that overlooked the fifth green, and portions of the sixth through ninth holes, allowing it to extend its ninth hole and prevent anyone from building next to the club. The side letter agreement came into play in 2011.

Hosting professional golf is in the family bloodlines. Sarvadi’s younger brother Paul founded Insperity (formerly known as Administaff), which provides human resources services for small and medium sized enterprises, and has been the longtime title sponsor of a PGA Tour Champions event in Houston.

“Twenty-five years ago, they did a survey of their top 6,000 clients and found the average age of the owner of the business was 53 and 72 percent of them played golf,” Jerry Sarvadi said. “So they hired Arnold Palmer to be company spokesman and do commercials.”

Sarvadi said he always envisioned hosting a major event at The Renaissance Club and even considered starting their own worldwide event but the Genesis Scottish Open has proven to be a terrific fit. It’s typically been played the week before the British Open, a spot it once again holds on the calendar this year, and always has attracted a strong field from around the globe. It has been strengthened the last three years since becoming a co-sanctioned tournament with the PGA Tour and offering full FedEx Cup points.

Sarvadi, who spends an average of 211 days a year in Scotland, passed on the responsibilities of running the day-to-day operations of the club last year to his youngest brother, 58, a former banker. The club has two more years on its current contract to host the DP World Tour and Sarvadi said that Genesis has an option to be the title for another five more.

“That’s what they wanted from the start,” Doak told The Fried Egg during a 2021 Q&A of its ambitions to host the pros. “It’s taken them years to get over the hump of an American-built private course hosting an event in Scotland.”

It’s just the latest success story for the Sarvadis, who seem to have that Midas touch.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek



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