Ask Golf Advisor: What makes a course 'Royal,' anyways?

Golf Advisor reader Seth W. wrote to us and asked, "How come some British Open courses are 'Royal' and others not? What is a Royal course, anyways?"

The faux retro holes at Royal Links Golf Club in Las Vegas are interesting and a lot of fun to play. Versions of the par-4 10th at Royal Birkdale in England or, from Scotland, Royal Troon’s short par-3 8th hole (“Postage Stamp”) seem entirely in place in a city with a faux Brooklyn Bridge and Eiffel Tower.

It will come as no surprise to the fee-paying players at Royal Links that the place isn’t really "royal." True to the image that the entire town has carefully cultivated, the name of the golf course is…well, if not exactly phony, then less than properly authenticated.

Despite an impressive-looking crown as a club logo, Royal Links is a pretender. It's not the only one, mind you. There’s also Royal Golf Club in Lake Elmo, Minnesota; Royal Melbourne Country Club in Lake Grove, Illinois, Royal American Links Golf Club in Galena, Ohio; Royal New Kent Golf Club in Providence Forge, Virginia; and ten variants of Royal Oak or Royal Oaks in the U.S.

They all lack the proper credentials attesting to sovereign prerogative from Buckingham Palace. Nobody of certified royal lineage has blessed upon the place the patronage of the royal family. It’s a practice that started back in 1833, when King William IV gave the royal stamp of approval to what had been Perth Golfing Society in Scotland. A year later, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews acquired its newfound status.

Befitting the reach of an empire on whose domain the sun never sets, the royal designation has been affixed to 66 golf clubs around the world, in countries like Malta, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. On two anomalous occasions, the designation was extended outside of Commonwealth domain: Royal Homburger Golf Club in Germany in 2013; Royal Golf Club Marianske Lazne in the Czech Republic in 2003; and Royal Port Moresby Golf Club in Papua New Guinea in 2012.

The two Irish clubs on the list were granted status before Irish independence: Royal Dublin Golf Club (1893) and Royal Curragh Golf Club (1910). Two clubs have since abandoned the title: Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club because it closed down, and Royal Hong Kong Golf Club out of deference to its newfound status under Chinese administration.

The royal designation is not just nominal. It generally is bestowed upon clubs with a certain elevated class status, home to elite businessmen and families with considerable wealth and influence. At many British clubs for example, working class and white-collar members will caddie for foreign guests, at a fee of around £50 ($62), roughly enough to cover a month's dues.

That’s the case in Northern Ireland, where the caddie corps at Portstewart Golf Club comprises club members. Not so at nearby Royal Portrush Golf Club, or down the coast at Royal County Down Golf Club, where the members would not stoop to working openly with their hands to pay for their golf.

Not all clubs in the royal family are so proud, however. At two of Scotland’s oldest links, Royal Dornoch Golf Club and Royal Montrose Golf Club, members are un-self-conscious enough of status issues and mindful of household economy to the point where they provide the bulk of the caddie corps.

What does it take to become royal? Sometimes the initiative has come at the behest of royal family who enjoyed access to the club. Other times it was a matter of discrete inquiry by the club itself.

So maybe the likes of Royal Links in Las Vegas should sent a letter to her majesty, Queen Elizabeth. Or better yet, to her golf-loving second son, the Duke of York, Prince Andrew.

U.S. applicants, however, should be wary of a little known part of the U.S. Constitution banning titles of nobility “of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.” That’s the text of Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8, otherwise known (are you ready?) as the Emoluments Clause. Imagine that – politics might get in the way of mixing royalty with golf in this country. Looks we’ll have to make do with fake titles, rather than real ones.

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