St Andrews: world's most famous municipal course
(Source: © 2000, Douglas MacKenzie)
The fact that the Royal and Ancient does not own the Old Course and that it is a public course is often mentioned in articles. This situation is not as a result of beneficence on the part of the R&A, it fought hard to keep a monopoly for members and only gave in to public ownership through parliamentary intervention and financial necessity.
The R&A had been asked in the late 1880s to cut back on golfing during the summer months to allow greater public use of the links between the clubhouse and Grannie Clark's Wynd. The club was less than thrilled by the suggestion: indeed, it had wanted an additional course for its members with some restricted access for non-members. The links had belonged to the Cheape family of Strathtyrum for many years but, in 1890, James Cheape indicated his willingness to sell. The R&A offered £3000 with Cheape to play £20 per year until the rights of the then tenant expired. He declined but promised the club first refusal on purchase should he change his mind in the future.
In 1892 the Town Council suggested joint ownership with the R&A with the requirement that the course become public. The R&A was determined to protect its members' interests over those of the town and offered Cheape £5000 for the land. This time he accepted with a number of provisos, that his descendants retain the right to dig shells near the mouth of the Eden, that no buildings bar shelters be built on the course and that his family could play the course. So, the following year, the R&A became the owner of the links but the Town Council was not to be denied. They promoted a parliamentary bill to acquire the links and, after a series of amendments, the act became law in 1894. It required the town to preserve the links as a public recreation ground and the R&A to maintain the Old Course and lay out the New. The Old Course was to be free to the public in perpetuity and was not to be closed for more than one month in each year.
The New course opened in 1895, designed by Old Tom Morris, but the amount of money allocated to maintenance was woefully inadequate and the R&A's Greens Committee had to borrow for improvements. Golf's popularity grew and the Town Council opened the Jubilee course in 1897 and the Eden in 1912 but at the same time maintenance costs were spiralling. The breaking point came in 1945 when the R&A decided that £4500 was the minimum required to maintain the Old and New courses and, more to the point, it did not have these funds. The Town Council was approached for help and it enacted a provisional order which allowed a council contribution to be made to the courses' upkeep and to charge ratepayers for golf. This order became law in 1946 and the situation of R&A responsibility with council contributions continued until 1953. At that date the two parties agreed to appoint a Joint Links Committee to manage all four courses.
In the picture, a seated Tom Morris, designer of the New Course, watches James Braid drive from the first tee of the Old Course. This was the start of a challenge match, Scotland v England, in 1905 with the top four golfers of the day. The remaining two members of 'the Great Triumvirate', J H Taylor and Harry Vardon, representing England, watch the shot as does Scotland's second player, Sandy Herd.
(Sources include Pat Ward Thomas, The Royal and Ancient (1980))