ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — I still can’t decide which was the coolest memorabilia on display at the R&A Clubhouse.
Was it the original oil paintings hanging on the walls? The precious silver Claret pitcher that will be awarded to the golf champion of the year? Or Alister MacKenzie’s original sketch of The Old Course surveyed and depicted in 1924? It’s all spectacular and part of the game’s rich history, but then you see the original challenge belt that was awarded to the winner of the Open Championship from 1860 to 1870 until young Tom Morris won the belt by winning the event three times in a row. – this is the next level.
Welcome to the Royal & Ancient Clubhouse, located behind the first tee of the famous Old Course, and an iconic building whose exterior is instantly known to golfers the world over. Arnold Palmer once described it as “being admitted into the hall of the gods”, and thanks to golf week assessor and club member Derek Dobbs, I received a great tour of the facility, which was originally built in 1854 in the Georgian style of the day.
Dobbs joined the private club, which has around 2,500 members worldwide, in 1989, or as he put it, “long enough to know my way around”. He usually comes and plays once a year. (He is also a member of Royal Dornoch #Jealous.)
Jacket and tie are required for entry and unfortunately no photos or videos are allowed. In the main hall is a cabinet which houses many of golf’s most prized trophies – from the Amateur and Ladies Amateur Trophy to the Claret Jug itself. There are two versions – the one that granted custody for a year to the golf champion of the year and the one that I have studied carefully, which never leaves the course and was last given to Bobby Jones when he won in 1927, and didn’t want to risk taking it home to America.
In the trophy room, where my eyes were drawn to the silver balls and led Derek to share the story of an infamous club tradition. Every year since 1754, the new captain hits the ceremonial drive from the first tee and the local caddy who retrieves it receives a prize. A silver casing of the ball is then attached to the cluster hanging from a silver putter like grapes on a vine. (Captains of royal birth – there have been four – have gold balls.) Later that evening, at a dinner party, new members must raise this ornament to their lips and kiss the captains balls. .
The Great Room, the main social room on the ground floor, features floor-to-ceiling glass windows and stunning views of the first tee. We sat and watched Trey Mullinax and others play and had a drink. The room is adorned with paintings of Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Michael Bonallack, the five-time British amateur champion, and old Tom Morris. To have a locker in this room, you must have been a member for 50 years.
Interestingly, members don’t otherwise have their own lockers; instead, they find an empty one and pay a pound for its use. They thought of almost everything, including a room for drying clothes in the locker rooms.
On November 30 or St. Andrew’s Day, the clubhouse is open to the public to visit the ground floor, and I encourage everyone to do so. But you will need a member to accompany you upstairs.
The walls leading to the staircase feature an impressive art collection that changes regularly. There were original oil paintings of the Grand Triumvirate – Harry Vardon, John Henry Taylor and James Braid, the three leading British golfers of the late 19e and early 20e centuries – of Francis Ouimet, the American who won the 1913 US Open at the Country Club and captained the R&A in 1951, and a painting of the 2003 annual meeting when Prince Andrew was named captain. Former Open champion Peter Thomson and course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. were easy to spot in the chart. Staff members were settling in for lunch as I admired the bird’s eye view from the first tee.
The clubhouse is a museum piece housing museum pieces of the great game. With room after room of ancient hickory putters, mashie-niblicks, brassies and cleeks, you wonder why the British Golf Museum is needed in the other side of the street. Here are many priceless antiques such as Old Tom Morris’ baffy spoon and Allan Robertson’s rutting iron, circa 1850. These clubs were made by true craftsmen but are so primitive they seem best suited for gardening . There is also a wall of unusual clubs, including a niblick rake, and the evolution of the golf ball from the feather ball (1840), gut ball (1890) and even a ball in leather (1943) in the billiard room.
The list of honorary members, which already included former Open champions Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Tony Jacklin, grew by three this week with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Paul Lawrie. As I descended, I saw a small wooden box with a slot cut in the top. Tucked on a table, it read: “Letter of Support to Candidates.”
Excuse me while I fill it out.