Built in 1854, the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse is an iconic image, recognisable to golfers worldwide. Yet it is very different to the building unveiled in the middle of the 19th century. Each elevation has changed over time, a result of the expansion that has taken place to meet the needs of the growing membership.
The Society of St Andrews Golfers had formed by 1766, but like other early societies did not have its own premises. Business meetings and social gatherings took place in local taverns. Even when the Society was granted royal patronage in 1834, and adopted the grander title of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the members still had no permanent place to call their own.
In 1820 the Society had been given the rights to a piece of land by the Town Council on the condition that it would be used for a clubhouse; however lack of finances prohibited this. That a clubhouse was eventually built was largely due to the efforts of Hugh Lyon Playfair.
Playfair recognised that golfers in St Andrews lacked suitable facilities. They had nowhere to change or store equipment, or even enjoy a post-match drink. In 1833 he leased “a primitive sort of clubhouse” and charged an annual subscription of five shillings. Proving successful, he expanded the operation in January 1835, by opening the Union Parlour. This was situated where the Grand Hotel (now Hamilton Hall) was later built.
The members of the Union Club were also predominantly members of the Society of St Andrews Golfers, but the Union Club was not a golf club; it was an institution offering clubhouse facilities and was financed by members’ subscriptions. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, on the other hand, existed to play golf. There was close co-operation between the two, as the same people ran both clubs.
Meetings of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club did not take place in the Union Club, as this was against regulations. They continued to be held in Adamson’s Inn, the Black Bull Inn or the Cross Keys.
In terms of wealth, the two organisations also differed. In 1852 the R&A’s accounts showed a profit of £47.15s.7d., whereas in 1853 the Union Club had a surplus of £804.17s. 4d. According to his memoirs (1861), Playfair said that he built up the surplus by his “masterly financiering and judiciousness”.
Playfair wished to expand further and had the building surveyed in 1852; however due to the extent of repair work required, the Union Club began to consider the possibility of building brand new premises.
The agreement of 1820 entered the discussions and it was recommended that a clubhouse, providing more spacious facilities, be built on the site by the first tee. A committee was appointed to oversee the building project, with Playfair as convenor.
Because the feu right to the land belonged to the R&A, an agreement was reached in which the R&A assigned “to the Union Club all right or title which this Society now possesses to demand a piece of ground from the City of St Andrews for the erection of a Club House, with power to the Union Club to build on such piece of ground and to use it as their own property in all time coming”.
The architect commissioned to design the clubhouse was George Rae (1811-1869). Born in St Andrews, his neoclassical style is identifiable in buildings around the town, with examples on Greyfriars Garden, Gillespie Terrace, North Street and Bell Street.
The foundation stone was laid on 13 July 1853. This event was treated as a ceremonial occasion, with long-standing R&A member and senior Freemason, John Whyte Melville, performing the honour. It began with a procession, accompanied by a band, from Madras College. Many St Andrews residents watched as Whyte Melville struck the foundation stone with a mallet and called for “the Great Architect of the Universe” to shower down his blessing upon the work”.
The project took eleven months to complete and was ready by 22 June, 1854.