St Andrews Part 4: The Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R & A)
Introduction – In Part 3 we introduced the founders of the Society of St Andrews Golfers. Forming the Society in 1754 was a positive action. They became the third Scottish society and were well placed to be an important authority as golf organisation became more structured. We explained in Part 2 that in their founding statement they referred to St Andrew's as the ‘Alma Mater’ of the golf. The Latin translation around this time was ‘bountiful or dear mother’. So they appeared to see St Andrews as early as 1754, as the ‘Mother of Golf’, or perhaps somewhere that nurtures golf.
The next important achievement was to gain Royal patronage. In 1833 King William IV agreed to be a patron to Perth Golfing Society granting the title ‘Royal’, the first club to receive this honour. Murray Belshes who would be the next Captain of the Society at St Andrews must have felt aggrieved, as the King was also Duke of St Andrews. He wrote to the Kings secretary asking if the King would agree to be the clubs patron. The King declined because he was getting too many of these requests. Murray was not deterred. He wrote again pointing out the age of St Andrews, the nobility who played there including some from overseas, and doubtless referred to the Dukedom. The king acquiesced and the club was renamed ‘The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews’. This was a wonderful title for a future ‘Home of Golf’. When the King died in 1738 Murray approached the Kings widow Queen Adelaide and she agreed to be patron. She was of course still Duchess of St Andrews. The Royal connection was maintained over time with six members of the Royal family being club Captain at St Andrews.
The Rules of Golf
Originally golf clubs played to their own set of rules. The earliest known written rules of golf were created by the ‘Gentlemen Golfers of Leith’ on March 7, 1744. They had 13 rules named "Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf". St Andrews used these rules with one small change to Rule 5. The R & A had a great influence over rules as they were changed or added but it was not until 1897 that its authority for the rules was formally established. This has to be particularly significant in building the status and reputation of St Andrews.
The R & A Rules of Golf Committee took over the responsibility for maintaining the rules. Later they shared responsibility with the United States Golf Association. They also gradually took control of the running of important golf tournaments such as the Open and the Amateur Championship. Looking after the rules for 107 years, and other responsibilities such as running the Open and developing the game, added to the prestige of the club and St Andrews. The R & A gave up its national and international responsibilities in 2005 and reverted to being a private golf club. It was unusual that a single club had been charged with such responsibilities when compared to other sports.
The Links for sale
The town council had been in financial difficulties and sold the links to a private buyer in 1797. This may not have been legal and anyway caused a great deal of trouble. The situation was stabilised when the Cheape family bought the links and secured the rights of golfers. However later they were prepared to sell it back to the Town Council or R & A. In 1893 the R & A did purchase the links but were challenged by the Town Council. A compromise was eventually reached whereby the town bought the links back on the understanding that the R & A could build the New Course to deal with overcrowding. It was clear during this period that the R & A would have liked a private course for their members on the links. The historic rights of the people of the town were however upheld. If a private course had been established it could have significantly changed the course of history on the ancient links.
The R & A did a great deal to uphold the status of the ‘Home of Golf’. They obtained the royal patronage, and selected an exceptional name ‘Royal and Ancient’. The upkeep and improvement of the old course was paid by them until charges for playing the courses were gradually introduced. The responsibilities for the Rules, the Open and other championships and the development of the game were significant for a golf club.
In return they enjoyed a privileged position on the links. The option of setting up a private course elsewhere was doubtless considered at times. The town and R & A eventually resolved their differences and the ‘Home of Golf’ continued to flourish.