From the Golf Journal Archives - An Historic Distinction

Oct 05, 2012

This article originally appeared in the November/December 1987 issue of Golf Journal. September 17, 2012 marked the 25th anniversary of Campbell's installation as captain of The R&A. For more information about the captaincy of The R&A, visit the Heritage section of The R&A website.

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Amid fanfare, William C. Campbell, former USGA president, became the third American to captain the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, and the first person to head each of golf’s governing bodies.

By Robert Sommers

AT 8 O’CLOCK on the morning of September 17, William C. Campbell, of Huntington, W.Va., drove himself in as captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, becoming the third American to hold this distinctive honor. He had been preceded by Francis Ouimet, in 1951, and Joe Dey, in 1975. He is, however, the first former USGA president to be chosen captain, and, therefore, is the only man to have stood at the head of the game’s two governing bodies.

While Ouimet’s drive had drawn raves, no one could remember a captain’s playing a better shot than Campbell’s. It soared far and straight and was headed for the Swilcan Burn when it was chased down by Dave Honeyman, an occasional caddie from the town of Cupar, a few miles away.

Honeyman trotted back to the tee, where Campbell met him and according to tradition offered him a gold sovereign for the ball, after checking to assure himself it was indeed the ball he had hit (he had marked it). The exchange was made. In past years, captains had offered to buy the sovereign as well, but with the price on the open market up to £130, about $214 at the official rate of exchange, the price is rather high, and after finding Honeyman knew the value of the coin, Campbell didn’t make an offer. Besides, Honeyman preferred to keep the sovereign.

Of itself, that one stroke won Campbell two trophies – the Silver Club and the Queen Adelaide medal, both symbols of office. Officially he had participated in a tournament, but since he was the only entrant, the competition began and ended with that shot. The origin of this tradition is rooted in the beginnings of the club, in the middle of the 18th century. Until 1824, the captain won the office through the autumn medal tournament, but since the captain, as the club’s champion golfer, was the arbiter in those early days of all disputes as well, he was not always the man best suited for the role.

Today the captain is elected by the past captains, who make their choice late in the year and announce their decision in May. The captain for 1989 has probably been chosen by now, but we won’t be told until the spring. This may be the best-kept secret in the game; no one can recall a premature leak.

Although he sits on the General Committee, which governs the club’s affairs, the Captain’s role today is largely ceremonial. As his first assignment, Campbell represented the R&A at the centennial celebration of the Royal Eastbourne Golf Club, in Sussex, England, the day after his installation; as his second, he represented the R&A at the Ryder Cup Match, in Columbus, a week later, which placed him in an awkward position, since he was an American carrying the banner of the invaders.

CAMPBELL’S DAY had begun long before he played his drive. He left Waldon House, one of the old weathered buildings that look out on the Old Course, a little after 7 o’clock, wearing a brown fedora and a tan raincoat. His golf bag was slung across his right shoulder, and a bulging tan carryall with red stripes drooped from the other. He stopped to chat with a passerby, then turned left and walked across and behind the 18th green toward the gray sandstone clubhouse of the R&A. He pushed open the swinging door of the vestibule, laid down his golf bag and stepped into the clubhouse, then turned right into the changing room.

Changed now into brown golf shoes, a tan, checked wool cap, ecclesiastical gray trousers, a white button-down oxford shirt and a standard blue tie bearing the white R&A imprimatur, Campbell spoke quietly to the doorman, took a clear plastic bag holding 15 or 20 old, abused balls, two or three irons, circa 1970, and a driver, found a patch of grass between skeletons of tents being raised for a coming tournament, and warmed up for the ordeal by hitting the balls onto the broad sandy beach skirting the bay.

The balls all gone, he walked back to the clubhouse to wait. Four friends from Campbell’s hometown had arrived well before he had appeared and waited alone in the morning chill, but by 7:45 the usual gathering of a few hundred spectators began to cluster around the tee.

As the tall grandfather clock inside tolled the hour in its deep, rumbling tone, Campbell was led out the door by Sir Robin Cater, the retiring captain, across the paved yard leading to the course, and down the stone stairway to the first tee. The crowd met him with polite and enthusiastic applause.

Everyone was in place. The bombardier stood by the ancient cannon, dredged up from a sunken wreck off the shoreline a century or so ago, ready to fire the shot signaling the ball had been hit, the caddies were aligned well down the first fairway, showing a healthy respect for Campbell’s skill, and all the former captains who had made the journey stood by on the tee. Only Laurie Auchterlonie was missing. He had been the club’s honorary professional for many years, and until he had become too ill, had teed the ball for the incoming captain. Laurie had died only weeks earlier.

With no one else to do the job, Campbell teed the ball himself, gripped his driver, then set himself for the moment, a tall figure standing alone in the dull gloom of an overcast morning. Then he did something out of the ordinary. With his ball balanced on the miniature cup of the wooden peg, Campbell raised his driver above it and tapped it twice with the soleplate.

Nervous laughter spread through the crowd. “He can still do it,” one spectator gasped. Smiling, others whispered among themselves.

NOW THE CROWD was hushed, the caddies stood in the distance ready to field the ball, and the bombardier had his eye on the clubhead, ready to sound its boom on contact.

Drawing back the club in a high arc, Campbell swung as hard as he could. The ball streaked down the fairway, soared on and on into the leaden sky, curled gently left as it began to lose altitude – he had evidently closed the clubface slightly, perhaps to avoid the white out-of-bounds fence on the right – bounded to the ground, and streaked through the picket line of caddies, stationed far downrange. They turned and raced after it, caught up, and scrambled for it as the ball bounced back and forth among them. Some fell to the ground, and finally it was caught and held by Honeyman.

Trotting back to the tee, he handed the ball to Campbell and took the coin.

“Do you know how much this is worth?” Campbell asked.

“Yes, I do,” Honeyman answered. “I’m going to keep it.”

THE CEREMONY over, Campbell and a number of guests, many of them Americans, strolled back to the old clubhouse for the Captain’s Breakfast, an occasion for old friends to share in the new captain’s relief at having survived his most terrifying moment. As the guests mingled and sipped a morning glass of champagne, they exchanged stories of other driving-in ceremonies.

Three years earlier, when John Behrend drove himself into office, the tee was so crammed with past captains and photographers the bombardier’s vision was blocked. As Behrend took a practice swing, the bombardier saw his club at the top of the backswing and fired the cannon.

With his simple, uncomplicated swing, Francis Ouimet, the first American to become captain, in 1951, lived up to the club’s motto, “Far and Sure,” by driving a beauty far down the fairway. Joe Dey, the next, in 1975, a man not known for his skill as a player, had practiced for months, hitting, he estimated, about a thousand balls, played a very good shot while millions watched on television back in the United States. Immediately after hitting the shot, Joe’s driver, a custom-made head with a graphite shaft, disappeared, like Ben Hogan’s 1-iron after his shot to the 18th at Merion, in 1950.

Then there was the Prince of Wales, back in 1922. By tradition the incoming captain is offered a bracer before facing the ordeal. The Prince evidently had more than one. According to the story, through a thick mist he wove across the street from the Grand Hotel, the red stone building behind the 18th green, and as Andrew Kirkaldy, the salty honorary professional of the day, teed his ball, the Prince said, “This is an awful job.” Kirkaldy replied, “Keep your eye on the ball.”

Versions of what happened next vary, evidently to avoid embarrassing the Prince. A newspaper account of the drive said, “Taking a half swing, the Prince, though he slightly pulled the shot, got the ball away a fair distance,” Bernard Darwin, the golf essayist, wrote in The Times of London, that the Prince hit the ball “low and to the left.” From less inhibited descriptions it seems clear he actually heeled the ball, rolling it along the ground into the Valley of Sin, a depression on the left front of the 18th green, almost directly behind him. Whether it was then or when some other luckless captain hit a similar shot, a member of the gallery is said to have cried at this point, “My God, if he holes it we’ll have a new course record.”

There have been other dramatic driving-in ceremonies. On the day in 1908 he was to become captain, Horace Hutchinson, who had won the second and third British Amateur Championships, was so ill he staggered across the street from the Grand, played the shot, then returned to his bed.

ABOUT TWO HOURS after driving in, Campbell was on the first tee once more to play in the Autumn Medal, the competition that once settled the captaincy for the next year. Once again he teed the ball and then tapped down on it as he had done at the formal ceremony. He drew the club back along the same plane and moved into it with all his power. This time, though, his timing was slightly off, and the club scraped lightly against the grass behind the ball, scarring the turf.

Campbell shot 74 in the Medal; not bad, but not good enough to win. Since captains have been elected, only Alec Hill has won the Medal, shooting 72, in 1964. At the other end of the scale, the Prince of Wales had a miserable day. Playing off a 15 handicap, he began by hitting his drive off the toe and rolling it close by the out-of-bounds fence, and shot 119. A hole-by-hole description related, “Then he had a 7, then a 9 .... He finished with a good 6.”

At least, however, when the Prince of Wales became captain, in contrast to when another royal figure assumed the office, the club had the course to itself. Prince Leopold, of Belgium, was installed as captain in 1876, during the British Open Championship, and the club forgot to reserve the course. Throughout the day, consequently, a group in the Autumn Medal teed off, followed by a group playing in the Open. Leslie M. Balfour won the Medal and Bob Martin the Open (Martin and Davie Strath actually tied, at 176, for what was then a 36-hole competition, but because someone contested the accuracy of his score, Strath refused to play off and, therefore, conceded the championship to Martin).

Sixteen years earlier, Captain Maitland Dougal was waiting to play in the Medal during a raging gale when word of a shipwreck reached the club. Manning the lead oar in a lifeboat, Captain Dougal spent five hours at sea on the rescue mission, returned to shore, changed into dry clothes, drilled a hole in his gutta percha ball and stuffed it with buckshot to keep it low in the wind (the ball wasn’t regulated), shot 112 through the storm, and finished second in the Medal, eight strokes behind William C. Thomson, the winner, with 104.

THE AUTUMN MEDAL, by the way, introduced stroke-play scoring to golf, in 1759. Until then scoring was strictly by holes – match play – but because the system of scoring by holes was awkward for large fields, the R&A decided that the total score would decide the captain.

Throughout the next year, Campbell will spend a good portion of his time in Britain, representing the club wherever it is appropriate. On Wednesday, the day before he assumed office, he studied the programs of some of his predecessors and found that within the first six months of his term, mostly in the off season, Cater had delivered 19 talks, “Or was it 29?” Sir Robin asked himself. Colin Maclaine, who served in 1985, appeared at 30 functions, and two years earlier John Salvesen had attended 28 affairs.

Told of his record, Salvesen said, “Is that all? I thought it must have been at least 50.”

Salvesen remembered his first mission. Friday morning (installation is always on a Thursday) he flew to Ireland for the centennial celebration of the Curragh Golf Club, where he was given a rulesbook from 1883, sent to the club by the granddaughter of the greenkeeper of the time.

A man with a high sense of mischief, Salvesen also remembers his last act rather vividly. Each year during Medal week, members of the R&A play a match against the St. Andrews Golf Club and the New Club (formed in 1902). The match over, all the players adjourn to the R&A Clubhouse, then to the St. Andrews Clubhouse close by, and finally to the New Club’s quarters, just down the street. Naturally, toasts are raised at each stop. Later in the day, Salvesen went off to Elie, about 15 miles down the coast, where, in red coat and white tie, he was to attend the club’s annual dinner. He was met at the door by Elie’s captain, and then, with a group of members in tow, he led a parade back along the 18th fairway to where the fourth intersects.

Insulated against the growing chill by an inner warmth, his followers shattered the evening peace by bellowing songs at high decibel level while Salvesen led them past the long rows of houses until they pulled abreast a pub facing the fourth fairway. Above the dreadful din, Salvesen’s powerful voice commanded his brigade, “Halt.” Spinning around to face them like a Buckingham Palace guard, he roared, “Fall out,” then raced them to the pub’s door. More insurance against the falling mercury.

WHILE THE driving in is a public ceremony, the captain is actually installed later in the evening at the club’s annual dinner in the St Andrews Town Hall, one of the perquisites resulting from the R&A’s contribution to a building fund in the middle of the last century. Seated at the head table next to Sir Robin, and with all the other captains outfitted in their red coats, Campbell had the Queen Adelaide Medal, the symbol of his office, hung around his neck, and attached a silver ball to the silver club, the symbol of his having won the one-man tournament.

Standing then, he spoke to the hushed audience.

“Thomas Wolfe warned that we can’t go home again, but you have let this wayward rebel do it, and the exception means more to me than words can say. I hope and trust that during this year you will come to realize that in letting me retrace ancestral steps in this special way you have reopened the heavy gates to someone who deeply loves your land, your people and your traditions of decorum, dignity and decency. I am both humble and proud to be one of you even for a while, and I pray that you won’t regret your benevolence….

“The fact that golf is the same game everywhere is no coincidence.” Holding out a weathered copy of the Rules of Golf, Campbell went on, “Recently I uncovered this 1950 comparison spelling out the Rules differences then between the R&A and USGA codes; it runs to nine pages. Thanks to the work and cooperation since then, Rules and even Decisions are now the same worldwide. Such effective communication between the game’s two governing bodies is a happy exception to George Bernard Shaw’s observation that we are two peoples separated by a common language.”

Then, finishing, he said, “I see it as the captain’s mission to spread the gospel. As spokesman he can raise the flag and sound the bugle – or the bagpipe – for what this venerable institution stands for in the world of golf and beyond. This I intend to do – with pride, pleasure, and gratitude.”

William C. Campbell, the third American to captain the Royal and Ancient. (USGA Museum)

“I see it as the Captain’s mission to spread the gospel. As spokesman he can raise the flag and sound the bugle – or the bagpipe – for what this venerable institution stands for in the world of golf and beyond. This I intend to do – with pride, pleasure, and gratitude.” (USGA Museum)

Joseph C. Dey, former Executive Director of the USGA (1934-1969), was the second American to be named Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, in 1975. (USGA Museum)