R&A rules roost in golf's power game

“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

Out of touch. Oblivious. Old Fashioned. Finding unflattering adjectives to describe the men — and now women of course — running the Open Championship that will this week be 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 lawsuits, 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.

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 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 him if his 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, 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.


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