Museum Moment: The R&A Ballot Boxes

May 19, 2011

By Lewine Mair

The R&A’s early ballot boxes reflected the serious nature of their role. Namely, to establish whether or not the latest membership applicant was worthy of acceptance to a club founded in May 1754 by “Noblemen and Gentlemen.”

The original boxes were mostly of stained wood, with a dark and shadowy tunnel leading to an inner compartment of two halves. One flank spelled acceptance, the other rejection.

The way things worked, a ball would be placed in the little well on top of the box before a member of the relevant committee would take it in his hand.

Always assuming that he was not of squeamish disposition and not fearful that some small rodent might snap at his fingers in the black interior, he would stretch his arm down the tunnel and deposit the ball into the side of his choice.

As Sir Michael Bonallack, secretary of the R&A from 1984 to 1999, would explain, the strength of the system was that no one watching the operation would be any the wiser as to which side was preferred.

Later, the balls would be removed via the drawers at the bottom. If a ball had been placed in the “Reject” drawer it was known as a “black ball” – never mind that it was as white as the rest. In accordance with the rules, “one black ball in ten” would spell the end of an applicant’s ambitions, at least at that time of asking.

In the beginning, nothing mattered more than that prospective members were of high standing in the community, as witness the following entry – the first thing of its kind – in Minute Book 2 from 1766.

“We, the Noblemen and Gentlemen subscribing Admirers of the Ancient and very healthful Exercise of the Golf, and at the same time having the Interest and prosperity of the Ancient City of St. Andrews the alma mater of the Golf at heart. Did this day agree to meet once every fortnight by eleven of the clock at the Golf House and to play a round on the links (in terms of the Regulations for the Silver Club). To dine together at Bailie’s Glass’s and to pay each a shilling for his dinner the absent as well as the present. This obligation to be binding on each of the Subscribers during the six months following this date and for every Summer hereafter unless Subscribers shall give a declination recorded in this book…”

It goes without saying that there would have been plenty of citizens of high repute for whom the ballot-box procedure was a mere formality. Yet there would have been borderline candidates who must have waited on the result as if their very lives depended on it. Indeed, even in these more egalitarian times, there are those for whom membership in the R&A means far more than they might be prepared to admit.

The first record of the acceptance of a new member appeared in the minutes of 1768, with the member in question one Alexander McDonald.

The ballot box procedure may or may not have been in play at that point. However, it was almost certainly circumvented in the case of Vicenzo Lunardi, “the daredevil aeronaut.” In 1885, this man of minor Neapolitan nobility was given an honorary membership on account of the hydrogen balloon flight he made across Scotland.

Starting in the grounds of George Heriot’s School, Lunardi flew 46 miles from Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth to a field near Cupar, with the journey taking an hour and a half. When news of his feat reached the men of the R&A, his presence was solicited in St Andrews, where he was invited to try his hand at the royal and ancient game of golf.

It appears that Lunardi had a rather better grasp of how to get himself airborne than his golf ball. Yet, though he took 21 shots for the first hole and presumably a commensurate amount of time, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that his honorary membership was rescinded.

In the British Golf Museum, a large membership book has been left open and leaning against the wall behind their 1879 ballot box. The various headings across the top of each page read as follows: Name of Candidate… Profession and Residence… Proposer… Seconder… Date of being Proposed… Admitted or Not Admitted.

No doubt anxious to avoid offending applicants’ descendants, the curators have left the tome open at two pages recording nothing but acceptances, all of them entered in a perfect script.

Since the proposer and the seconder of a prospective member were not afforded the same secrecy as those doing the voting, their role in membership matters was much the tougher. If, say, the golfer they had put forward was involved in some unseemly skirmish or failed to pay his dues, others would want to know why the members had recommended him in the first place.

Non-payment of dues was by no means a rare happening in the club’s first century. In 1816, for example, it was noted in the minutes that membership had risen to more than 100 in 1815, but that “nearly half of that number had failed to pay on time.”

The R&A clubhouse is home to a later ballot box than the one gifted to the USGA in 1975 and the one in the British Golf Museum. Their example is a 19th-century affair which sits in a cabinet in the billiard room and sends out altogether less sinister vibes than its predecessors. In fact, it gives the impression of having been no less lovingly crafted than one of Willie Auchterlonie’s mashies.

There were others like it but none has been used since the end of World War II.

Today, a prospective member will be given a form and his proposer and seconder will ask mutual friends to support his application. These friends will either write in and note their approval or, in what would be a worst-case scenario, suggest that the club might be better off without him.

The redundant 19th-century ballot boxes were given away to members interested in golf memorabilia, while no doubt simultaneously looking for a happy reminder of the day they were accepted to the world’s most famous golf club.

One would like to think that these old boxes are not completely redundant and that they might from time to time be used to settle a family dispute.

How, one wonders, would the voting go if it was a matter of whether the man of the house should spend his Sunday on the links or take the children to the beach?

Lewine Mair is the European correspondent for globalgolfpost.com. She is the author of several books and was formerly the golf correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. E-mail questions or comments to lewinemair@aol.com.

The R&A Ballot Box, which is on display at the USGA Museum Far Hills, N.J. (USGA/John Mummert)


Michael Bonallack hits a tee shot during the 1966 World Amateur Team Championship at Olgiata Golf Club in Rome, Italy. (USGA Museum)