NS. ANDREWS, Scotland — It is without a doubt one of the most recognizable buildings in any sport. And certainly the most recognizable building in golf. Since 1854, the clubhouse of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club has stood directly behind the first tee on the Old Course at St Andrews, the most famous 18 holes in any country. Not a bad place actually.
However, hold on. Only the exterior of this esteemed establishment is really known to the vast majority. For most of us, what’s inside remains a mystery. Usually, only the approximately 2,500 worldwide R&A members and their guests are allowed in through the side door on the right when looking at the building from the track. That fact is true 364 days of any non-leap year. However, one day, November 30, or St. Andrews Day, the clubhouse will be open to members of the public interested enough to tour the property.
I am, therefore I did. In the company of clubhouse manager Graham Clark I spent a fascinating half hour looking around the various rooms on the ground floor. Only the ground floor. What lies above and below is still reserved for members, no matter what the calendar says.
As I stood in the foyer in front of the doorman’s desk, my eyes immediately fell on the cutlery table a few yards away. In it, in addition to the amateur championship trophy and the women’s amateur championship trophy, is the original burgundy jug. Last presented to the winner of the Open Championship in 1927 – a young lad named Bobby Jones – this priceless artifact never leaves the clubhouse.
Indeed, according to Clark, Jones should take credit for that fact himself. It seems that the thought of something happening to the jug as it sailed back and forth across the Atlantic was just too stressful for the man who would win the Grand Slam in 1930. By this time, a replica trophy was presented to the “champion golfer of the year.”
One last thing, which will no doubt appeal to fans of whimsy: the famous misspelling on the trophy in use today – “Holylake” instead of “Hoylake” as the location in 1947 – is not a repeat of the original jug. Rightly and rightly, there “Hoylake” is present and correct.
The next stop, just a few yards to the left, is the Trophy Room, or the South Room (no one will ever accuse the R&A of being overly imaginative in naming rooms in the clubhouse). It contains the various medals and cups that the members have played for during the Spring and Autumn meetings. Best known for an eclectic mix that includes a Kangaroo Paw (which doubles as a lighter) and a Canadian Silver Beaver, are the club captain’s balls. All the way back to 1754, each captain hit a ceremonial drive off the first tee, had the ball returned by a local caddy, and then had the ball anchored in a silver casing. They are not all silver, however; captains of royal birth have golden balls.
The next stop was the Big Room, where we found the largest one-piece carpet in Scotland. It is handmade by the now defunct Antrim Carpets in Ireland and weighs just under half a ton. Originally these were the members’ lockers, but this is the most visible area in the clubhouse – the large bay windows overlook the first and 18th fairways – and there are still a few clubs. But only a select few – traditionally the longest-standing members – have that privilege.
Yet it is the various paintings that draw the eyes to. Queen Elizabeth is up there. Just like her uncle, the Duke of Windsor. So is Sir Michael Bonallack, five-time amateur champion and former club captain and secretary (he and Lizzy Windsor have the honor of being the only two living people on the walls).
Former Open champion Willie Park van Musselburgh will also be there, but will make a guest appearance to replace Freddie Tait, who is on loan. Perhaps the most memorable image, however, is the depiction of the first running-in ceremony. Funded by every member in the frame (of which there are many), the trick, according to Clark, is to count how many dogs are in the picture (six, apparently).
“You can see all the photos that show a time before 1899,” Clark says. “No balcony at the front of the clubhouse.”
The Big Room is also home to what amounts to the club’s vetting service. Once an aspiring member is accepted by the Club Committee, his name will appear in “the book” and members will be invited to support his application. Each aspiring member will need somewhere between 30 and 40 members to support them if their application is accepted. However, it is possible to be “black balls”. Members are free to write letters contesting the eligibility of a candidate. If two or three members object, the candidate will need 40 to 50 supporters to enter. If more than three members object, the candidate is unlikely to be considered.
Interestingly, the clubhouse does not have a bar. Members looking for a drink can grab the attention of a waiter or waitress or ring one of the many bells in the Great Hall and elsewhere. And the food? The club has a well-deserved reputation for the high quality of its lunches (served upstairs in the dining room). Local fish and chips are always popular, as is the certainly unique house specialty of chopped and poached egg – a curious mix, even in the country that gave the world the haggis.
Equipment connoisseurs are not neglected on this tour. In the hallway leading to the library, a wall cabinet contains clubs and balls, both representing a graphical development history. There are some classic clubs: the ‘water niblick’, another with adjustable lofts and a ‘roller putter’, just to name three.
A map of the Old Course hangs in the library, which is unfortunately far from extensive. That is not always the case. Because the club owns more photos than it has room for, the staff makes regular changes.
Next door we found ourselves in the snooker room, a full size table that dominated the proceedings. It’s regularly used in what used to be the committee room, Clark says. In fact, there used to be two tables, one for members, the other for the staff who lived in the clubhouse until the 1950s. The female staff even had their own stairs to their quarters in what became a two-story building in 1882.
Today, as it always has, the clubhouse continues to evolve. For example, if there are plans for new changing rooms, they will be placed under the small parking lot next to this fascinating building. All in all, a must-visit for golf geeks everywhere.