KGVI as Duke of York at St Georges HillThe Royal Navy and Royal Marine Golfing Society (RN & RMGS), open to all regular officers past and present, was formed on 26th August 1921. The first annual event was held at St George’s Hill in 1922 to coincide with the Spring leave period of the Atlantic Fleet; the meeting lasted four days and was followed by a match against the home club. By the end of the first year, over 300 officers had joined and played 11 matches.

On 20th January 1949, the formation of a ‘new’ RN Golf Club (Society), open to all ranks and rates, was approved by the RN and RM Sports Control Board. This was accepted unanimously by the RN & RM Golfing Society’s Committee and a new set of rules were drafted and, in May 1949, approved by the Sports Control Board. This ‘new’ society was eligible for monetary grants, not been available to the officers-only RN & RM GS.

By 1969 the RNGS had become the organising body in naval golf with all Command Societies (Plymouth, Portsmouth, Medway, Scotland, Air, Far East etc) affiliated. The Society also ran the RN Open Championship, Inter-Services and Representative matches, as well as its own fixtures.

In 1975 a separate RNGA was proposed but this was not accepted until 1985 when Navy Golf funding was diverted from the RNGS. The Captains of RNGS and RNGA separated in 1986. Until the early 1980s RNGS Committee meetings were held in the MOD.

In 1997 the Society was told that because of organisational changes in the MOD, serving officers could no longer act as Officers of the Society (eg. President and Secretary). Since that date the Society has existed in its present form.

Longer History by Richard Sharpe

On a glorious autumn day in the Firth of Clyde, an elderly diesel-powered A class submarine berthed alongside for a short weekend break in the Admiralty harbour of Troon.  

Wearing evil smelling ‘dog robbers’ and sporting two and a half sets of oil impregnated golf clubs, three of us reported to the Secretary at Royal Troon Golf Club.  I confessed I was a member of the RNGS.  Asked if we wanted a match against some members, we demurred and were waived onto the first tee.  On our return to the club house in the evening gloom we found a dozen members (mostly ex-wartime Navy) anxious to host a dinner complete with piper and quantities of the famous grouse.  Membership of the RNGS had opened a door to the renowned hospitality of Ayrshire golfers. 

This incident was in the mid 1960’s at about the time television became instrumental in creating the great golf explosion which was to turn a cosy minority sport into the commercial giant it has become today.

The Royal Navy and Royal Marine Golfing Society (RN & RMGS) was formed at a meeting in Whitehall on 26th August 1921.  The aim was to promote golf in the Navy, and the Society was open to all regular officers past and present.  The first annual event was held at St George’s Hill in 1922 to coincide with the Spring leave period of the Atlantic Fleet.  The meeting lasted four days and was followed by a match against the home club.  By the end of the first year, over 300 officers had joined and played 11 matches, of which four were won, five lost and two drawn.  This ratio of wins and losses has remained pretty constant to this day, although the match list today stands at 20, half against clubs and half against other societies.

The annual Spring Meeting was the main Society event until 1938 and was held variously at St George’s Hill, West Hill and Camberley Heath, followed by Wentworth, Sunningdale and the Berkshire, as numbers playing grew to over 150 and ‘two course’ clubs were considered essential to cope.

Also by 1938 His Majesty the King had granted Royal patronage, and two First Sea Lords, Earl Jellicoe and Sir Ernle Chatfield had served terms as Presidents of the Society.  Numbers of members had grown to over one thousand in a ratio of two serving to one retired.  In 1935 the Honorary Secretary had tabled the first of many complaints (recurring down the following decades) that he had had difficulty in raising full teams for all the matches.

Other pre-World War II issues of note were that in 1927 the Society had allocated £5 to the Ryder Cup fund, and in 1929 the governing body of golf, the Royal and Ancient (R & A) sent a letter refusing to sanction the use of steel-shafted clubs.  Clearly the RNGS was ahead of the R & A in technical developments.  Also members were spread all over the world and a letter received from one of them refers to Pagoda, a three-hole course close to a burial ground in Fouchal (China?), of which Local Rule no. 1 was: “Corpses lying on the fairway may be moved” and no. 2 was: “Bones, skulls, old guts and decomposed membranes are hazards and as such may not be lifted.”

Distinguished members of that era included Rear Admiral Cyril H G Benson, who became a Life Vice President and contributed a Medal and prizes, one of which continues to this day.  It was of Benson that the great golfing scribe Henry Longhurst wrote: “At the age of 81 he played at the R & A May meeting from the Medal tees on the old course at St Andrews, carrying just six clubs.  His gross score of 88 in a strong wind was better by far than many half his age using caddies and a full set of clubs.”    Longhurst also mentions a naval officer, Maitland Dougall, who in 1861 at St Andrews launched a lifeboat in the bay in response to a distress signal. After five hours rowing at stroke oar, he came in, inserted buckshot in his ball to hold it down against the wind and went on to win the Medal competition.  A century later he would have made a splendid RNGS Captain.

Then there was the Reverend Ulyat, a naval Chaplain who is also remembered in today’s trophy presentations.  He figures prominently in the competition prize lists throughout the 1930’s.  It may be doing him an injustice, but at the time there was much concern over the allocation of handicaps.  Church of England banditry?  Surely not.

At the outbreak of World War II a Captain A F Strickland was the Captain of the Society. Realising in 1946 that he was ipso facto still Captain, he asked Commander (S) LA Jeffery to become the Hon. Secretary, a role he described at the time as being that of Elijah.  Of all the remarkable Society officials over the years, and there are many, Jeffery must take pride of place.  He served from 1946 first as Secretary and at the end as Treasurer until his death in 1974.  For many years he was concurrently the Sunningdale Club Secretary.

Unfortunately, the minutes of the AGM’s and committee meetings covering this period are missing, but we know that the Spring Meeting spanned first four and later three days and was held at Sunningdale throughout the post-war years until 1973.  This now internationally famous club was in financial difficulties in the `50’s, and I can remember at the end of the Spring week being handed (with many other RNGS members) an application form to join.  Why didn’t we take up the offer?  Well Sunningdale was a long way from any naval bases and was ‘just another inland golf course’ like many others!

In mid-1948 the then President wrote to all naval C-in-C’s that “There was a strong feeling amongst the younger generation that the Society is not today providing the best facilities.  This was painfully evident at the recent Annual meeting when the younger element were conspicuous by their absence.”  Along with the failure adequately to support Society matches, this became a second recurring theme through the succeeding decades.

The proposed solution in 1949 was to re-invent the Society as the RNGS, dropping specific mention of the Royal Marines but expanding the membership to include all officers and ratings from the ranks of the regular Navy and Marines, as well as embracing reservists and other Navy associated bodies.  This allowed the Sports Control Board to allocate funds for RN golf development while leaving the Society to act as the de facto organisers of naval golf, including the running of the Navy Open Championship, Inter-Service and representative matches, as well as its own fixture list and annual meeting.  All Command Societies were affiliated to the RNGS.  Listed amongst these were:  Portsmouth, Plymouth, Medway, Rosyth, Air, Royal Marines and Far East.  There were probably others.

Sadly, by 1972 Sunningdale had become too expensive and presumably the indefatigable Jeffery had lost his influence.  So, in 1973 the Spring Meeting shifted to Blackmoor and Liphook, where it remained until 1998.  In the post-war years both clubs had offered green fee concessions to the Portsmouth Command.  Combining play at the two clubs (even though only five miles apart) for a three-day event (which reduced to two in 1976) was clearly an organisational nightmare, and repetitive committee discussions ranged over the division of play between the two clubs and the format of the various competitions.  The minutes over the years betray a wheel grinding inexorably round in full circles as conscientious committee members did their best to cater for conflicting priorities.  In truth, there was no solution which could ever satisfy everyone.

In 1976 an Admiral’s Bowl was introduced as a separate competition for officers of Flag rank.  This had first been proposed in 1935 but rejected as being divisive.  That it has not become so is due to the efforts of some of the better golfing Admirals and RM Generals who have been particularly active in Society events.

A second annual meeting, this time in the autumn, was first played at Hindhead Common in 1981, before alternating between North Hants and Trevose/Newquay.  In 1991 Newquay hosted the first Society annual dinner and, after a nearly unanimous vote at an AGM, the Autumn Meeting has been held on consecutive days at these two courses in the West Country since then.  A Summer Meeting at Minchinhampton was introduced in 1998 at the same time as Blackmoor was dropped as a shared venue for the Spring Meeting.  A winter tour to the Algarve was inaugurated in 2000 and is well supported.

The only other events of historical interest are the appointment in 1986 of a separate Captain of RN Golf (to run the Navy golf team), the designation of Liphook as the Home club in 1994 (not universally popular with some Liphook members), and the organisational changes in the Armed Forces in 1997 which effectively meant that serving officers could no longer be guaranteed to be available to act as officials of the Society.

How do we stand in 2008?  Apart from the perennial complaints about shortage of volunteers for some matches and the need to attract more serving members, the Society is in good health with over 500 life members (of which about half still play golf), well supported annual meetings and a strong fixture list at some notable golf courses.

That this is so, is entirely due to the work of successive dedicated Presidents, Society Captains and the Hon Secretaries, Match Secretaries and Treasurers who today make up the committee, plus of course the individual Match Managers.  The Royal Navy is a hierarchical organisation, but the RNGS most certainly is not.  With names like Jellicoe and Chatfield as past Presidents, we probably instinctively feel that an Admiral ought to be in the chair.  But inevitably in these days of diminishing and absurdly overstretched Armed Forces, most members of the Society who play regularly are going to be on the retired list, and apart from a few years in the 1920’s and `30’s this has always been the case.  No-one cares what rank you hold, and the company of people who at some period of their working lives have had a shared naval background, is always congenial.  Continuous recruitment is essential as every year some members reach their golfing sell-by date and a few move on from the 19th hole to the celestial 20th.

RNGS golf is competitive but never too serious.  There are a few single-figure players, but many have handicaps in the 16-22 bracket.  The best comment on the Society is that by Jimmy Sheridan, who was the Caddy Master at Sunningdale for over half a century until 1967:  “If the Navy drive their ships the way they drive their golf balls, God help the country.”  As he is also reported to have told George VI that he made a far better King than golfer, we might assume that Sheridan meant it as a compliment.

Richard Sharpe

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