Royal Sydney members in a lather amid ‘constitutional crisis’ threat

Not since the infamous "incident" of 2005 when a pursed-lipped official from Royal Sydney marched on the hallowed fairway brandishing a tape measure and checked if one woman's skirt met the club's strictly adhered rule that it be no shorter than mid-thigh length has Australia's most prestigious and intensely private golf club been in such a lather.

A revolt among some of the 6,000 members of the club, who each have paid around $20,000 to join with annual subscriptions of $5000 making it one of Australia's wealthiest clubs, is threatening a "constitutional crisis", pitting Royal Sydney's current president Graeme Bailey against two of its former captains, Denis Lenagan and Ivan Haege.

Meeting place for the elite: The Royal Sydney Golf Club

Photo: Supplied

It all began in March after PS reported Bailey had become involved in an imbroglio during the club's annual general meeting when he found himself in the rare position of having a challenger for the first time in years, with another former club captain, Tim Rankine, making a tilt for the top job.

Rankine had been a vocal agitator questioning ambitious plans to sink between $40 million and $70 million into re-developing the iconic clubhouse and fairways. While Rankine was unsuccessful the situation has now escalated into all-out war, with a series of explosive letters being traded between Bailey and various club and committee members.

Two weeks ago Lenagan and Haege made requisitions for an extraordinary general meeting to be held, backed with the signatures of more than 60 other members, in order to vote on resolutions to change the club's constitution, written in 1972, over the seemingly benign issue of allowing postal and electronic voting at AGMs.


At the March AGM, Bailey won the president's vote with the nod from 64.7 per cent of the 815 members who turned up to vote, a fraction of the club's 6,000 members, who – under the constitution – can only vote if they register at the AGM.

Bailey has also been criticised by several "requisitionists" for going through the signatories and attempting to convince them to withdraw, either through letters or phone calls.

One senior member of the Sydney judiciary wrote to Bailey on Monday: "Such coercion is inappropriate and unfair to some members who might be easily intimidated."

Royal Sydney boasts a who's who of Sydney's elite, from the judiciary and political circles, to captains of industry and "Triple A" socialites, from Ros and Gretel Packer to Warwick Fairfax, television presenter Anne Fulwood and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who gets honorary membership for his position.

Prospective members who want to join the elite club must be endorsed by existing members, and are then "scrutinised" by the club to gauge their worthiness, a process that can take years.

"If a member doesn't like you they can make it very difficult for you to join … black-balling goes on all the time," said one long-term member on the grounds of anonymity. "And if they want to get rid of you, under the constitution you have no right of reply or recourse … the decision is final, which would seem to fly in the face of basic modern legal principals."

Sticking to tradition, Royal Sydney did not respond to PS's queries, while an equally reluctant Mr Lenagan said "this is a private matter between club members".

But several members who did speak off the record expressed their concern about such large sums of money being spent on the proposed redevelopment of the course which sits on some of the most expensive real estate in Australia in Rose Bay, conservatively estimated to be worth over a $1billion if it were ever – heaven forbid – subdivided.

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Andrew Hornery

Senior journalist Andrew Hornery is the man behind The Sydney Morning Herald's Private Sydney column. If they are worth knowing about, they are on the PS radar.

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