The donation was no big deal perhaps, but in retrospect it is probably the most significant event in the history of golf. It was from this event that The Society of St. Andrews Golfers was effectively formed, becoming ultimately The Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 1834 upon being granted Royal Patronage by King William 1V.
Today, it is the premier golf club in the world governing the game in all countries outside the United States of America and Mexico.
Ten years earlier, the Town Council of Edinburgh had presented The Gentlemen Golfers of that city with a silver club to be competed for annually by ' As many Noblemen or Gentlemen or other golfers from any part of Great Britain or Ireland.' This competition in Edinburgh was an immediate success and in 1754 twenty two 'Noblemen and Gentlemen of Fife', clearly not wishing their perceived golfing pre-eminence of St. Andrews to be usurped by Edinburgh, contributed to the purchase of a similar silver club in the following terms: 'The Noblemen and Gentlemen above named being Admirers of the Anticient and healthful Exercise of the Golf, and at the same time having the Interest and prosperity of the Anticient (viz) City of St Andrews at heart, being the Alma Mater of the Golf, did in the Year of Our Lord 1754 Contribute for a Silver Club.... and having a St Andrew engraved on the head thereof, to be played for on the Links of St Andrews upon the 14th Day of May said year, and yearly in time coming Subject to the Conditions and Regulations following.
'As many noblemen or gentlemen or Other Golfers from any part of Great Britain or Ireland, as shall book themselves on, or before the day appointed for the Annual Match, Shall have the priviledge (viz.) of playing for the said Club, Each Signer paying Five Shillings Sterling at Signing in this Book, which is to lye in the house of Mrs Williamson in St Andrews, or in the Custody of Robert Douglas Merchant there, Who is Appointed Clerk, ad vitam, Aut ad culpam...'
We know nothing of Mrs Williamson or what sort of house she presided over and can only hope that it was a reputable establishment. What we do know is that all of the subscribers were regular gents and that many of them were well known on the links of Leith. There the Edinburgh brethren were regularly playing for their silver club and had already restricted the entry to members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
Whilst the St Andrews regulations stated that the competition was open to all golfers, in reality the five shillings entrance fee, equivalent to several weeks wages of a working man, precluded all but the extremely well-heeled.
It is interesting to note that the rules and regulations under which the silver club was played for, were, without acknowledgement, copied directly from those of the Edinburgh Golfers. It is doubtful, however, that the Edinburgh men would have felt anything other than flattery about this. The majority of the 'noblemen and gentlemen of Fife' were well known on the links of Leith and the majority maintained homes in Edinburgh and many were employed in the legal profession - as were the majority of the members of the Honourable Company.
One of the objects of this initiative of providing a silver club for competition was to promote and strengthen the position of St. Andrews in the golfing firmament. In this the 22 'Noblemen and Gentlemen' certainly succeeded, for St. Andrews continued to be the 'Alma Mater' of golf, with all gentlemen golfers in the country aspiring to membership of the St. Andrews Society and thereby becoming eligible to compete for it. Ultimately, The Royal and Ancient became the governing body of the game and the town of St. Andrews the 'Home of Golf'.
It would be heart warming to think that the 'noblemen and gentlemen of Fife' had an altruistic motive in starting their golfing society. St Andrews of the time needed the business. The Scottish economy was in bad shape and St Andrews in particular was in dire straits. These gentlemen may have had tourism in mind when they started their 'open' competition. If they did, they were extremely far sighted for golf not only rescued the town from penury, but it also established it on the world map from which the reformation had expunged it after enjoying centuries of wealth as a place of pilgrimage. Within a hundred years of the inauguration of the Society, St Andrews would again become a place of pilgrimage for religious zealots - but this time their Mammon was golf.
Golfers the world over owe their great game to The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. The R&A has seen the game through many troubled times, painstakingly going about its business, making the rules and setting the standards of play as well as the standards of etiquette and integrity that has made the game great. Unlike their cousins in Edinburgh, the Society has played its game throughout its long history on the same narrow strip of links land that is the Old Course. While the Honourable Company has shifted its home from Leith to Musselburgh and finally to Muirfield, the R&A has persisted in its patronage of the municipal Old Course where it shares its time and space with all and sundry who come to play.
St Andrews too, owes the R&A a debt of gratitude for, as an institution it has guided and developed the game and the town throughout these 250 years. The relationship has been a symbiotic one although each side has not always seen the mutual benefits. But it is a relationship that has survived through respect and affection and is possibly stronger and closer today than it has ever been.
Happy birthday R&A, and many more may you see.
|| 26 - APRIL 2004