Last Wednesday, the 22nd, the members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews held their annual "autumn meeting." As the clock on the century-old sandstone clubhouse signaled eight o'clock in the morning, the incoming captain of the club stepped up on the first tee and drove himself into office. The members of the R & A, who come from all of the six continents, then played their rounds on the Old Course, and in the evening, with all the former captains decked out in their pink coats, everyone sat down to the traditional bumper banquet. Since the R & A has long been to golf what Rome is to art, the autumn meeting is always an occasion, but this year it carried more significance than usual: the club's first autumn meeting was held 200 years ago.
A NECTAR PENMAN
The Royal and Ancient, to be exact, was 200 years and four months old last Wednesday, for it was in the May of 1754 that "22 noblemen and gentlemen" banded together and formed their club. Contrary to general belief, they were not absolute pioneers. Ten years earlier the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (who play today at Muirfield) had organized the first modern golf club, but the St. Andrews group was blessed with a succession of natural leaders who lived primarily to make their club pre-eminent, and slowly but surely they did. The number-one go-getter was a Scot with the fine postprandial name of Major Murray Belshes, who began to operate in 1834 when the club still went by its original title, the Society of St. Andrews Golfers. A nectar penman if there ever was one, Major Belshes, after a long correspondence with King William IV's secretary in which he refused to honor the secretary's insinuation of "Don't write me; I'll write you," at length prevailed on the king to become the club's patron and to approve the club's calling itself the Royal and Ancient.
The newly royal club then began its conquest of other distinctions. Up to the mid-19th century, Scottish golf clubs had more or less followed their own individual rules. There was a need for standardization, and most clubs agreed to adopt the R & A's. By the 1890's, clubs formed in England and on the European continent had fallen into line and the R & A came to be recognized as the game's official governing body, a position it occupies today for golfers in all corners of the world, except those living in the United States and our outlying possessions who take their direction from the U.S. Golf Association. Coincidentally, the R & A gradually took over the stewardship of the Open (which had been inaugurated by Prestwick) and Amateur (born at Hoylake) and the various other national championships. For all of the energies of hustlers like Major Belshes, the R & A, when all is said and done, rose to the top-bananaship of golf not because it outcompeted other proud clubs, but rather because the other clubs were open-minded enough to realize the R & A had unique qualifications for leadership. It was the most national club—golfers from all over the island had made it their second club. Furthermore, and maybe first of all, it was situated in St. Andrews.
There is only one "Sinandrooz," as the Scots pronounce the sacred town. If you love golf, you really do find its truest flavor and spirit in St. Andrews and on the Old Course. The old gray town, poised on a craggy bluff, lies on the eastern tip of Fifeshire about 35 miles from Edinburgh as the Kro-flites. A university town, its population today is about 9,000. Seventy-five per cent of its residents—man, woman and bairn—play golf on the four courses that lie below the bluff on a finger of wind-whipped linksland hemmed in by St. Andrews Bay and the estuary of the River Eden.
Reading from left to right, as you look down from the town, there is the Eden Course (built in 1914), the Old Course, the New Course (1894), and the Jubilee Course (1946). The three "new" courses have been built on reclaimed land, the sand tossed up by the sea as it retreated over the past two centuries. When the Old Course was laid out, water washed up to its edges and the original finger of links-land was hardly wide enough for two fairways abreast. Hence, the holes of the Old Course marched in a straight line and single file, as it were, to the tip of the finger where they described a loop and then marched home again, an incoming fairway merged with an outgoing one, huge double greens (some of them over an acre) cut for two pin positions, so as to serve both an incoming and outgoing hole. This long string bean of a layout, its fairways billowing seas of grass-covered dunes, with bunkers frequently set smack in the middle of a fairway, has stood the test of time and the challenge of change like no other course in the world. John Low, writing at the turn of the century, aptly called it "indestructible."
The Old Course is common land, owned by the town, but it is also the ward of the Royal and Ancient, and perhaps this is the fundamental reason why the club reigns so rightfully and vitally as the headquarters of world golf. When you play the course today, you walk the same turf which, at one time or another, just about every great golfer has trod since the game was born.
Is a golfer liable for slicing his ball and sending it sideways into the eye of his partner standing to his right, instead of on to the green straight ahead?
No, said the Missouri Appellate Court, because "no player has ever achieved such perfection in the game that he does not occasionally hook or slice a ball...To hold that a golf player was negligent because the ball did not leave in a straight line, as intended by him, would be imposing upon him a greater duty of care than the Creator endowed him with faculties to carry out."