Royal and Ancient belatedly enters the modern era

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The Independent Online

In what is a historic step for an organisation that will celebrate its 250th anniversary next year, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews is separating its executive branch from the private members club. To the outside world, the change may be less startling.

"It's a big change, and not a big change," Peter Dawson, the present secretary of the Royal and Ancient, said. "We will still be the R and A but reorganised so we can do what we do better."

By the end of the year the executive branch of the club will take on a corporate structure, with separate companies running the Open Championship and its commercial activities, and the governance of the game, while a charitable foundation will be set up which is expected to make donations totalling £50m by 2010.

In 1897 the Royal and Ancient was asked by other leading clubs to establish a unified set of rules for the game. The club soon became the governing body for every country worldwide except the United States and Mexico.

Private clubs running sporting affairs has a long tradition in this country. The MCC did so in cricket until 1969, when it ceded control to the Cricket Council and the then Test and County Cricket Board. This move by the Royal and Ancient is not so extreme a measure.

"The R and A is retaining its responsibility for the game of golf but this legal separation provides us with a better way of doing it," Dawson said.

The new structure will remove the unlimited personal liability on members of various committees, and on all the members of the club. Committees, which until now have been drawn from the membership of the club with the odd expert co-opted in a non-voting capacity, will now be free to draw representation from all areas of the game.

This restructuring was first proposed by the finance committee and has been considered over the last three years. One of the perks the members will lose is their vote on the new Rules of Golf, which are updated every four years.

While the executive branch has generally been thought to be doing a good job, there has been increasing disquiet about a club with a male-only membership policy governing the game. This reorganisation may technically remove that objection.

The Royal and Ancient, the private club that is, will no doubt remain the most prestigious and influential club in the land, with an imposing clubhouse behind the first tee of the Old Course, and will host the Open every time it returns to St Andrews. Those are, many observers feel, good reasons for it to reconsider its membership policy.