The relationship between The Royal and Ancient Golf Club and the Old Course has often been misunderstood. The Club does not own the Old, or, indeed, any of the courses in St Andrews. Archbishop Hamilton’s deed of 1552 refers to the public ownership of the links, which were used for playing sports and grazing livestock.
Over the years, the ownership of the links changed hands. In 1797, financial difficulties forced the Town Council to sell the links into private hands. Later, a period of dispute, known as the Rabbit Wars, led to the purchase of Pilmour Links by the Cheape family of Strathtyrum in 1821.
By the end of the 19th century, golf had become so popular that overcrowding was a serious problem. In 1890 The Royal & Ancient offered to buy the links from Alexander Cheape and build another golf course on the land. The offer was turned down. In 1893, following Alexander’s death, the opportunity arose again and the Club purchased the links for £5,000. The Town Council were also interested in gaining the land at this time and bought the links from the Club, whilst granting The Royal & Ancient the right to build a second course – the New Course.
The Club was still responsible for the upkeep of the two courses. This complex transaction was enshrined in an Act of Parliament, known as the 1894 Links Act. The act allowed green fees to be charged for playing on the New Course in the summer months.
In 1897, the Town Council built the Jubilee Course. It initially consisted of twelve holes, but was extended to 18 holes in 1906, again to ease congestion and attract slower players from the Old Course.
A further Links Act of 1913 allowed green fees to be charged to visitors playing on the Old Course. The Act also guaranteed tee times for Royal & Ancient members. The fees helped finance the construction of a fourth course, the Eden, which opened in 1914.
The R&A remained responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the Old and New Courses, whilst the Jubilee and the Eden were the responsibility of the Town Council. The 1946 Links Act introduced charges on the Old Course for local residents and, subsequently, the Town Council and the Club merged the running of the four courses together under the control of the Joint Links Committee in 1953.