The R&A in Charge

“Ev­ery golf course in the world that has been awarded the du­bi­ous hon­our of the Royal Char­ter has two things in com­mon: They have some of the best cour­ses with some of the worst mem­bers.” – David Fe­herty.

New Zealand Golf Magazine - - FEA­TURE -

Out of touch. Obliv­i­ous. Old Fash­ioned. Find­ing un­flat­ter­ing ad­jec­tives to de­scribe the men - and now women of course - run­ning the Open Cham­pi­onship that was this year played at Royal Birk­dale isn't ex­actly the hard­est part of any jour­nal­ist's job. But here's the thing. Just about ev­ery­one in golf has heard of the Royal & An­cient Golf Club of St. An­drews, since 1897 the rules-mak­ing body for the game out­side of the United States and Mex­ico. Nearly as many think they know at least a thing or two about the 2,500 or so-strong mem­ber­ship from over 40 dif­fer­ent coun­tries across the globe who find a com­mon home in the iconic club­house that sits di­rectly be­hind the first tee on the world's most fa­mous links, the Old Course at St. An­drews.

But in that ba­sic as­sump­tion al­most all are mis­taken.

While most golfers can come up with the well-known fact that the R&A con­trol the old­est of the four ma­jors, the Open Cham­pi­onship (never the “Bri­tish Open”), when it comes to ex­actly what else goes on in the of­fices boast­ing surely the best view in golf, ig­no­rance pretty quickly sets in.

For one thing, the R&A doesn't own the Old Course. In fact, they don't own any cour­ses. So it's no good call­ing up ask­ing for tee-times. And for another, there are ac­tu­ally two R&As th­ese days, one a lit­tle bit older than the other. The first, the afore­men­tioned Royal & An­cient Golf Club, has been around since 1754. And the sec­ond, which came into be­ing as re­cently as 2004, is the group of com­pa­nies whose um­brella ti­tle, “The R&A,” cov­ers the vast range of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties pre­vi­ously han­dled by its el­der cousin. The two, while dis­tinctly sep­a­rate in a le­gal sense, re­main closely linked in that the vast ma­jor­ity of those on the myr­iad R&A com­mit­tees are also mem­bers of the golf club.

The big­gest rea­son be­hind the split was to take away the risk of le­gal ac­tion against Royal & An­cient mem­bers. “It is the lim­ited com­pa­nies that are li­able th­ese days,” says one mem­ber who asked to re­main anony­mous. “That wasn't the case be­fore. When you are in­volved in rules and equip­ment changes and the like, the po­ten­tial for some­one to sue you is al­ways there.”

So, while the R&A gets on with, amongst other things, the in­tri­cate busi­ness of dodg­ing law suits, the Royal & An­cient mem­bers are free to con­tinue with the var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties that have so am­ply filled their golf­ing years since the days be­fore even Old Tom Mor­ris was young.

“It is the lim­ited com­pa­nies that are li­able th­ese days,” says one mem­ber who asked to re­main anony­mous. “That wasn't the case be­fore. When you are in­volved in rules and equip­ment changes and the like, the po­ten­tial for some­one to sue you is al­ways there.”

“There is an in­cred­i­ble ar­ro­gance about the R&A,” says one tour player, al­beit anony­mously. “They seem to have a great re­luc­tance to con­sider the some­times ob­vi­ous fact that they might not be do­ing some­thing the right way.”

Be­com­ing a mem­ber, how­ever, is no easy mat­ter - and in­clud­ing the fe­male half of the world's pop­u­la­tion has no doubt made the vet­ting process tougher than ever. To join the club, a prospec­tive mem­ber must be pro­posed by a cur­rent mem­ber and sec­onded by two oth­ers (each of whom must have known the can­di­date for at least five years).

Once that prospec­tive mem­ber is ac­cepted by the Club Com­mit­tee, his/her name goes in “the book” which is kept in the “Big Room” in the club­house, and mem­bers are in­vited to sup­port his ap­pli­ca­tion. Each prospec­tive mem­ber will need some­where be­tween 30-40 mem­bers to sup­port them if their ap­pli­ca­tion is to be ac­cepted.

It is, how­ever, pos­si­ble to be “black-balled.” Mem­bers are free to write let­ters con­test­ing the el­i­gi­bil­ity of any can­di­date. If 2-3 mem­bers ob­ject, the can­di­date will need 40-50 sup­port­ers to get in. If more than three mem­bers ob­ject, it is un­likely that can­di­date will be con­sid­ered. It hap­pens too. Not too long ago, Sir Fred Good­win, the former chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Royal Bank of Scot­land was re­fused. His name was in the book for a while – sup­ported by Jack Nick­laus, amongst oth­ers – but was dis­creetly re­moved not long af­ter the RBS fi­nan­cial melt­down took place.

Just as many PGA Tour pro­fes­sion­als are hardly big fans of the United States Golf As­so­ci­a­tion, Euro­pean Tour play­ers typ­i­cally find fault with what they scathingly re­fer to as “the am­a­teurs.” Few pro­fes­sion­als have much good to say about the R&A, par­tic­u­larly in the ar­eas of rules, equip­ment and the Open.

“There is an in­cred­i­ble ar­ro­gance about the R&A,” says one tour player, al­beit anony­mously. “They seem to have a great re­luc­tance to con­sider the some­times ob­vi­ous fact that they might not be do­ing some­thing the right way.”

The al­ways-con­tro­ver­sial is­sue of equip­ment reg­u­la­tion is the big­gest area where many pros feel short- changed by the R&A.

“The man­u­fac­tur­ers left them at the gate,” says another pro un­der the cloak of anonymity. “And it wasn't that long ago that the R&A were test­ing balls with a wooden headed driver. I mean re­ally. They just don't know what they are do­ing some­times.

“Hav­ing said that, I would ac­knowl­edge that the game needs some­one to do what the R&A do. None of the tours want to get into rules mak­ing be­cause of the po­ten­tial for le­gal prob­lems if a dis­pute arises. I just wish they did a bet­ter job of it.” Such a view even finds sup­port from within the club.

“If we could have one wish, I'm sure it would be for golf not to be the way it is now,” says one mem­ber. “Many of us deeply re­gret the de-skilling of the game, es­pe­cially driv­ing. But what the R&A re­ally hates is ‘bi­fur­ca­tion,' dif­fer­ent rules for am­a­teurs and pros. It is their worst night­mare. If that hap­pens, the pros would have dif­fer­ent rules and, in time, dif­fer­ent rules mak­ers. So there is a self-serv­ing aspect to that - the R&A would be less rel­e­vant and/or pow­er­ful.”

Un­til that hap­pens though, the R&A is in charge. Like it or not.

David Fe­herty.

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