IT is a case of putters at dawn. A legal dispute has broken out between the body which runs the most famous golf course in the world and a company which wants to use the “St Andrews” name to sell its clubs.
The St Andrews Golf Company, which is based just outside the Fife town, has been in business in the area for more than 130 years.
Its clubs are a favourite of First Minister Alex Salmond and valued as an example of Scottish heritage and craftsmanship. When Salmond held aloft a silver putter at the last Ryder Cup in Chicago to celebrate the event coming to Gleneagles next year, it was a St Andrews Golf Company club in his hands.
But when the company –which encompasses a number of historic clubmakers in the town – recently tried to register its trademarks with the Intellectual Property Office, it was astounded to learn that objections were lodged by the St Andrews Links Trust.
The charitable trust, which runs seven courses including the Old Course, claims it holds the rights to the words “St Andrews” when associated with golf and that if the St Andrews Golf Company wished to use the town’s name in a trademark to be marketed around the world it would be required to pay for a licence.
Ewan Glen, chief executive of the St Andrews Golf Company, said: “What has happened is absolutely outrageous. The trust was set up to run the golf courses and it is dripping with money received from the public in green fees. Money and power seems to have gone to its head and [it is] now resorting to bullying and threatening businesses that have been in St Andrews for generations.
“I fully understand that the ‘St Andrews’ name needs to be protected from the threat of counterfeiting and copying but the trust is acting like a hard-nosed commercial company, rather than a not-for-profit trust. They [the trustees] are pretending to be the only legitimate custodians and seem to want to play God with the name of St Andrews.”
Glen added: “We have been told by the trust they will take us all the way legally even if it means going to judicial review and they have made it clear they will spend as much as it takes to knock our company out of this battle. That could happen because we simply do not have the same financial clout as the trust and I think that is a misuse of what is effectively public money.
“The trust seems happy to go to war with people like us – but we are not alone. The trust already has had battles with other prominent businesses in the town.”
The company said it would like the establishment of an independent body in St Andrews that could rule on such matters and did not have commercial interests. This body would be responsible for ensuring any legitimate St Andrews-based company could have use of the name as long as it met the relevant criteria. This would be similar to the system used in places such as the Champagne and Roquefort regions of France, which gives protection to local producers of sparkling wine and cheese.
Golf commentator Neil Tappin, digital editor of Golf Monthly magazine, said the name “St Andrews” was a valuable commodity in the world of golf. “St Andrews is probably the most powerful name in golf alongside Augusta and the Masters,” he said. “When you think about golf, one of the first things that springs to mind is the Old Course at St Andrews and the [Swilken Burn] bridge and everything that comes with it. It has an enormous amount of heritage and it is one of the most sacred and iconic things in golf so it is incredibly powerful.
“It would have commercial value because if you can tie your brand into the heritage of the game then it could have an enormous amount of commercial influence.”
A spokesman for St Andrews Links Trust said that international licences were sold by the trust and, although the amount earned was commercially sensitive and details were not available to the public, it did benefit worthy causes in and around the town. He said: “The Links Trust courses are the oldest and most renowned in the world and often referred to simply as St Andrews. The trustees view it as their duty to reduce the danger of misrepresentation and to nurture what the name symbolises around the world.
“A number of individuals and businesses, both in Scotland and beyond, were using our intellectual property without permission and, in order to protect our commercial interests, we began a programme of trademark and brand protection.
“In recent years we have engaged with local stakeholders with many of them supporting our actions and working with us to protect and preserve the St Andrews brand for the benefit of the community, partners, visitors and everyone involved with the town.”
He added that efforts had been made to work with St Andrews Golf Company Limited to try to reach a satisfactory outcome but to no avail. “We have made significant investment to promote our commercial interests and have a duty to track and enforce our intellectual property and in this case were left with no choice but to register a legal objection,” the spokesman said.