A Scalping at St. Andrews

Continued (page 2 of 5)

"Breaking down the costs is not something we'd want to get involved with," says Robin Dugmore, London-based general manager of the Old Course Experience. "As an organization, we sell deluxe programs. It's first-class. That is our philosophy -- and I don't think that is something you can break down into pounds sterling and pence."

The idea that some tourists pay so much money for a tee time on the Old Course, and that so much of the cash is going to Keith Prowse, does not seem to faze officials of Links Trust. Asked if it's fair that some visitors should pay such a big premium to play the Old Course, Links Trust general manager Alan McGregor replies that he doesn't know how much the premium truly is. "I'm not privy to the breakdown of [Keith Prowse's] costs. We don't get into that." He adds: "At the end of the day, it's up to you whether to pay it. Nobody's twisting your arm."

Until the mid-1970s, all decisions about fees at the Old Course were made by the town of St. Andrews and by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, whose clubhouse sits directly behind the first tee. All that changed when the Town Council was disbanded in 1975. Not wanting management of the links to end up with the Fife County officials who were now to oversee St. Andrews, residents and other links supporters lobbied for creation of the Links Trust, a self-financing charitable organization. Its aim, designed in the Scottish tradition of golf as a sport that is open to all, is to "hold and maintain the Links as a public park and place of public resort and recreation."

The R&A technically has nothing to do with the courses' day-to-day operations anymore (though three of the Links Trust's eight trustee positions are nominated by the R&A). Peter Dawson, secretary of the R&A, says he has only a "limited understanding" of the Keith Prowse deal. But he believes the agreement is "an economic success" that allows the Trust to "invest in the courses while making golf extremely inexpensive to locals." (St. Andrews residents pay a little more than $200, and that covers their green fees for an entire year.) Dawson describes the club's relationship with the Links Trust in glowing terms. "We're totally supportive of the Links Trust," he says. "They've done an absolutely astounding job."

There's no disputing that the Trust's six courses are in far better condition than they were before the deal with Keith Prowse, but not everyone agrees that the Trust has done such an astounding job off the course. Indeed, many who care about St. Andrews are quite critical of the Links Trust and the nine-year-old Old Course Experience deal in particular. "I would have fought tooth and nail to stop the Links-Prowse contract," says Alec Beveridge, who was general manager of the Links Trust from 1984-'92. "The Old Course should be considered a national monument. ... It should not be a course just for the townspeople, the R&A and the wealthy tourist."

"Quite frankly, it is disgraceful that an American friend of mine has to call London [Keith Prowse headquarters] to get a tee time at the Old Course at an outrageous price," says Sandy Rutherford, a former St. Andrews Town Council member and a principal architect of the Links Act of 1974, which created the Links Trust. "It is a farce."

To some, the Old Course Experience is symptomatic of a shift within the Links Trust. The people running the Trust, these critics complain, are focused on empire-building and have lost sight of the true St. Andrews experience. In the past decade they have spent several million dollars building two clubhouses and, on the outskirts of town, they have staked out a seventh course that will cost $15 million, even as other non-Links Trust courses in the area struggle with limited demand. With their Old Course Experience package deals, they are herding visitors into big, American-style hotels and essentially forcing them to dine in the mass-market food emporia of the Links Trust clubhouses, because it's all prepaid.

Even the storied St. Andrews caddies are feeling put-upon by the Trust. It has started demanding they pay $10 a day for the privilege of working there. This has caused some of the more experienced ones to move to other courses in the area, where caddies don't pay a fee.

Links Trust management has a word for these complaints: ridiculous. McGregor says the Trust had to start the $10 charge to make it clear to tax collectors that the caddies are independent contractors, not employees, and a recent survey showed that most visitors are satisfied with their caddies. The new clubhouses are vital to the future of St. Andrews because, without them, visitors would still be changing their shoes in the parking lot, he says. The seventh course is essential, Links Trust officials contend, to keep up with demand from local players as the town of 16,000 grows. And the Old Course Experience packages are bought by only a fraction of the people who play the Old Course; for most it is still very affordable, says McGregor.

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