Monarch of the greens: British institutions: The Royal and Ancient

US golfer Tom Watson kisses the Swilcan Bridge in front of the Clubhouse on the 18th hole during his second round on day two of the British Open Golf Championship at St Andrews in Scotland, on July 16, 2010. Watson's 4 over par total will mean he misses the cut, so this will be his last appearance in an Open Championship at St Andrews. AFP PHOTO/ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN DENNIS

The Royal and Ancient has ruled golf for over two centuries. It now shares crucial rules and equipment arbitration with the US Golf Association. Its tiny staff may be overwhelmed with legal challenges to its equipment rules as designs advance in the next decade.

A private club in Scotland is the unlikely ruler of a global golfing empire.

Less likely headquarters for world golf is hard to imagine. Admittedly, St Andrews boasts four 18-hole courses and a 9-hole one (a fifth 18-hole course, the Strathtyrum, is due to open this summer). From the granite-grey clubhouse of the Royal & Ancient (R&A) its secretary, Michael Bonallack, enjoys a sweeping view down the 18th fairway of the Old Course, with the green of the Road Hole, the scene of so many golfing triumphs and disasters, beyond.

The trappings are certainly adequate. But St Andrews as a place is nowhere. On Scotland’s east coast, it has no railway station; the nearest, Leuchars, on the Edinburgh to Aberdeen line, is 15 minutes by taxi. It has no airport. It has no motorway. Fax machines now mix with the deep armchairs and ancient oils of the clubhouse, easing communications with the world outside. But face-to-face meetings require arduous journeying.

From this retreat, the R&A presides over a huge golfing empire. America has its own golfing authority, the United States Golf Association (USGA). Canada and Mexico are semi-independent. But more than 60 countries, and perhaps 15m golfers, bow to the R&A’s authority. The R&A decides what equipment golfers may use, and (with the USGA) what rules they play. When disputes arise, it is judge and jury. It also runs the British Open championship and invests in developing British golf.

This empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind. The first written record of golf at St Andrew’s dates back to 1552: golfers’ rights were protected when the Archbishop of St Andrews was granted rights over the rabbit warren. The club was formed by 22 noblemen and gentlemen of Fife who started the “Society of St Andrews Golfers” in 1754. It became “Royal and Ancient” in 1834 when King William IV became its patron.

New clubs sought the R&A’s advice. “We are all duffers here. Please send us copies of your rules,” wrote one. “Please send me by return the length of the holes at St Andrew’s as I intend to lay out a course on the common next weekend,” wrote another. In 1897, the R&A’s governing role was formalized, as countries abroad recognized Scotland as the home of golf.

Getting the empire was one thing. Keeping it is another. The R&A’s full-time staff remains minute: eight executives plus a support staff of 16 (the USGA has 200 people). It relies entirely on the voluntary services of its 1,800 members, of whom 1,050 are British or Irish. Some are distinguished amateur golfers. A handful of professionals are admitted as honorary members. But the R&A is no meritocracy; many members are invited to join because they are “clubbable”. The USGA, by contrast, is not a club at all, but a representative organization with 8,000 member clubs.

Strains are evident. “In years gone by as late as the 1950s – a lot of members were wealthy people,” says George Wilson, the R&A’s deputy secretary. “In a changing environment, where people have to work for a living, it is not so easy to give all your spare time to running golf.”

Yet the R&A survives. Golfers are conservative, disciplined people. Cheating is easy. Anyone can nudge a ball into a better lie when no one is looking. Stopping it requires not only rules but a strong moral code. That comes naturally to the old-fashioned British gentleman – especially the Scottish version. Golfers accept authority in a way more anarchic sportsmen never would.

Even that would not protect the club if it was incompetent. It isn’t. The Open Championship, first held in 1860, has been transformed first by television and then by the boom in corporate hospitality. In 1922 the winner, Walter Hagen, won Pounds75 – Pounds2,000 in today’s money. Last year the prizes totaled nearly Pounds1m ($1.5m), and revenue Pounds7m. Yet the club has avoided the kind of foul-up that ruined this year’s Grand National steeplechase because of primitive starting procedures supervised by another archaic British body, the Jockey Club.

The R&A’s next challenge is likely to come from the golf-equipment manufacturers. They persuade golfers to pay out at least $7 billion a year worldwide in their eternal quest to hit the ball farther, straighter, less often. In their way stand six amateurs and two consultant scientists who advise them, on the R&A Implements and Ball Committee. Jointly with its American equivalent – which has half-a-dozen scientific professionals on the job- it decides how far the ball may fly and with what it may be hit.

So far, the system has worked. The R&A pooh-poohs suggestions that modern equipment transforms golf. The statistics do not show drives getting much longer, says the club. Most changes now are cosmetic, such as colored shafts and big heads for drivers. Most manufacturers have played the game. The Japanese are commended for making sure that everything they produce is strictly kosher.

But tensions are not far from the surface. In August 1989 Mr. Bonallack was attending a convivial dinner after the Walker Cup, a transatlantic amateur match, in Atlanta, Georgia. As he left, lawyers representing the Karsten Manufacturing Corporation served a writ on him, after the R&A’s banning of their new Ping Eye2 clubs. The case has gone against the Pings, but it was a rude shock in a world of gentlemen.

And it could get worse. Until now, equipment performance has not hit the R&A’s limits. Over the next ten years, manufacturers will be able to exceed them, and they will want the rules changed. The R&A’s amateurs will have to cope with a big industry, lobbying for change, and exercising the clout that money brings. They may then be glad that St Andrews is so geographically remote.

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