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Golfing conflict in the home of golf
This is not a new phenomenon. In the 18th century, litigation, with suits and counter-suits appears to have been synonymous with life in St Andrews. Throughout the 19th century, nothing brought a smile to the face of an Edinburgh advocate like the mention of St Andrews. It also brought much rubbing of hands after the subsequent counting of coffers.

The history of St Andrews Links is strewn with conflict. But for the legal action that went as far as the House of Lords at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th centuries it is doubtful if we would have golf at all today. The outcome of this case, known as the 'Rabbit Wars', for it concerned the farming of rabbits on the links, ensured the continuity of the game as we know it today. The Rabbit Wars brought the Royal Burgh of St Andrews into penury, a condition with which it was not unfamiliar, but it also brought about the Sale of Pilmour Links. This is the triangle of land that lies to the south of the 18th fairway of the Old Course. The Town Council sold this land to relieve its burden of debt and found itself threatened with litigation by the Society of St Andrews Golfers, the forerunners of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.

The Council did a deal with the Society such that if they dropped the action the Society would be given land gratis to build their clubhouse on the Links. In 1850 the R&A did just that and their edifice stands to this day behind the first tee as a golfing icon.

The House of Lords again came into play when it was brought to resolve the first St Andrews Links Act in 1894 when the town council finally re-acquired its links land but, for one reason or another, the House was called to amend the Act a further five times in the next 70 years. Nothing is achieved easily in St Andrews.

The Links Act under which the courses are currently administered is only 30 years old, a mere blink of the eye in St Andrews time. It was formulated as a consequence of prime minister Ted Heath's regionalisation plan when town councils were abandoned and regional administrations were established. Then, ownership of the links passed from St Andrews Town Council to Fife Regional Council but the Act ensured the preservation for golf, not only for the townspeople and the R&A, but also for those resorting to the town to play the game.

A board of Trustees was established to oversee the Act's implementation and a Links Management Committee was empowered to administer it.

We have enjoyed 30 years of peace and prosperity in St Andrews but old habits die hard. Conflict has again erupted over the proposal by the Trustees to build a new golf course on the south side of the town. You may think such an opposition understandable for St Andrews already has more golf courses than any comparable sized community in the world. But what one has to remember is that St Andrews probably has more golfers than any comparable sized community and it certainly has more golfing visitors. In short, the demand for golf in St Andrews is probably greater than it is anywhere else on the planet.

The town has nearly doubled in size in the last 30 years and the university has more than kept apace, consequently the demand for local play has escalated. Furthermore, worldwide demand for golf in St Andrews, and over the Old Course in particular, has put added pressure on the Links Trustees to fulfil their obligation for the provision of golf to all interested parties. In many respects one might say that the Trustees are not only burdened with heritage but that they are also burdened with their own success.

In acquiring land to the south of the town, adjacent to the two new courses of the St Andrews Bay development, the Trustees have met with vehement opposition from environmental groups of various hues as well as, bewilderingly, from the Community Council.

Their argument goes along the lines of enough is enough and has something of a knee-jerk reaction about it. What is astonishing is that the same local interest groups are actively campaigning to limit the growth of the town through the establishment of a green belt. Ironically, if all the proposals to construct golf courses around St Andrews currently before Fife regional Council were passed, they would collectively establish a green belt about the town.

Since the St Andrews economy is almost totally based upon golf, the construction of more courses should enhance the economy while at the same time relieve pressure upon the existing courses.

But it is the environmental impact argument that I find hardest to understand. Land currently under the monoculture of modern agriculture is hardly eco-enhancing. Apart from old established woodland, a well designed and well managed golf course probably provides a more diverse environment, and therefore ecology, than any other form of land use.

The St Andrews Links Trustees are not exactly profligate and private investors are not known generally to throw good money after bad, so, if you find the conflict about the construction of more golf courses in and around St Andrews bewildering, you are not alone. The critical thing to remember is that nothing about golf in St Andrews happens without the maximum possible controversy.

©    26 - JANUARY 2004

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