The Early History of the Club
The Challenge for the Silver Club
Golf was played at St Andrews as early as the mid-16th century, with the earliest written evidence dating to 1552. A document, bearing the seal of Archbishop Hamilton, makes reference to the public ownership of the links, which were commonly used for ‘playing at golf, futball, schuting, at all gamis’. It is likely that these games, including golf, had been regular pastimes for some years prior to the deed.
Golf continued to be played throughout the 1600s and 1700s. By March 1754 twenty-two ‘Noblemen and Gentlemen of Fife’ had decided to provide a silver club for competition at St Andrews. The date chosen for the first Challenge was 14 May. The Silver Club was to be competed for annually and, according to the rules, the winner would become ‘Captain of the Golf’ for the year.
The regulations for the Challenge were very similar to those drawn up by the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh in 1744, one difference being that the competition in St Andrews was to be played over 22 holes. Fourteen subscribers paid five shillings each to compete. William Landale, a local merchant and town councillor was the winner of the inaugural Challenge, for which fourteen subscribers paid five shillings each to contest.
An entry from the minute book dated 4 May 1766 shows that the ‘Noblemen and Gentlemen’ had formed a society and that the members were meeting regularly to take part in the ‘very healthfull exercise of the golf’. ”
Although the winner became ‘Captain of the Golf’, there was not yet a society for him to serve; the role of Captain at this time being to resolve disputes and inspect the links.
The rules of the Challenge also stated that it was the duty of the new Captain to provide a silver ball to be attached to the Silver Club, a practice which continues to this day.
Formation of the Society of St Andrews Golfers
An entry from the minute book dated 4 May 1766 shows that the ‘Noblemen and Gentlemen’ had formed a society and that the members were meeting regularly to take part in the ‘very healthfull exercise of the golf’.
The minutes also give an insight into early club life. Members were to meet “once every fortnight by eleven of the clock … and to play a round on the links. To dine together at Bailie Glass’ and to pay each a shilling for his dinner, the absent as well as the present”.
Bailie Glass’ was a tavern in St Andrews. Before societies had their own clubhouses, it was customary for them to use local establishments as their meeting places, telling us much about the social nature of golf.
In January 1836, club member John Murray Belshes wrote to King William IV “respectfully requesting him to honour the golf club of St Andrews by becoming its Patron and to confer on it the style and title of Royal”.
The King agreed to the change of name and the Society of St Andrew Golfers became The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. It took greater persuasion for the King to agree to become Patron, but Belshes persisted with his request and the King agreed later that same month.