Peter Dawson Part I

Peter Dawson is arguably the most powerful man in golf outside the United States. As secretary of the Royal & Ancient, his domain is global and even his harshest critics credit him for gently nudging the body he governs into the 21st century. 

GGP: Before we tackle more pressing issues, there’s an elephant in the room: What do you tell people who insist you’ve painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa at The Old Course in St. Andrews because you have lengthened the famed Road Hole for the Open Championship this summer.  
 
DAWSON:  We see the Old Course played a lot by the professionals. We have the Dunhill Links tournament there every year. We have the Open Championship there every five years. We have a very good handle on how they (the pros) play the holes. This isn’t just based on the odd observation. The hole has never been lengthened before now. It was played in 1900 at the Open Championship at exactly the same length as it was in 2005. So there can be no doubt that the hole has changed in the way it has played.
 
GGP: How so?
 
DAWSON: We’re seeing, in windless conditions, the pros getting into position off the tee where they want to be with considerably less than driver. We’re also seeing hardly anyone go on the road through the green today because they’re hitting into the green with much more lofted clubs. So many of the old challenges of the hole have changed. That’s not to say it’s an easy hole, as the scoring statistics still tell you it’s a tough hole. But we are putting in a new back tee, which incidentally (Sir) Henry Cotton presaged back in the 60s, thinking there should be a tee exactly where we put this one.
 
GGP: Will there be flexibility in the setup?
 
DAWSON: We may not use it (the new tee) every day. It depends on the wind conditions. But it will lengthen the hole by about 40 yards and either put the driver back into their hands or make the second shot longer. Of course, we knew going into this there would be a lot of comment. We knew there’d be remarks about it. But it’s still our duty, if you like, to maintain our links course’s challenge  and where we think it ought to be. 
 
GGP: We thought you had been done with changes at The Old Course.
 
DAWSON: I did say that in the past when we lengthened the course before with back tees. I just mentioned that that would be the end of it as far as The Old Course was concerned. So to that degree, on this particular hole, I’ve gone back on that. But we did also, during the Dunhill this year, consult with some of the top pros before we did this and got a positive reaction.
 
GGP: Any other reaction to the change at 17 that might have been compelling or amusing?
 
DAWSON: There was a remarkable thing in the Times (of London). John Hopkins (golf writer) seemed to have asked four American architects what they thought of this change and they all were wondering how it changed the angle of the drive. Of course, the angle hasn’t changed at all. Sometimes these people think we’re stupid. It’s amazing thing to assume that we had mucked up to that degree. It’s just staggering.
 
GGP: Any other changes at The Road Hole other than the tee?
 
DAWSON: Two players in particular strongly suggested that we should ease the fairway back on the left a little more if we were going to take the tee back, and I think that’s right.
 
GGP: To create more bailout for players hitting driver?
 
DAWSON: Yes, we had, actually, over the years squeezed it a bit right, to be honest because it was getting easier off the tee. So we will ease it back a bit.
 


 GGP: Moving on to other issues, any chance that the list of current Open Championship venues — the ‘Rota’— could be expanded in the future?

DAWSON: In the last 10 years or so we brought back Carnoustie and we brought back Hoylake so we now have nine. We’re always open to new venue ideas and we look at new courses from time to time. We’ve found some where the infrastructure’s been fine but the course hasn’t been up to it or the course has been fine but the infrastructure hasn’t been up to it. So we have no hot prospects on the list at the moment, that’s for sure. But we do get a lot of questions from Ireland in particular about Portrush and (Royal) County Down and Portmarnock in the south but we’ve never been outside the United Kingdom.

GGP: In the States it’s mostly referred to as the “British Open,” and if it ever went to Portmarnock wouldn’t it be difficult, for political reasons, to call it the “British Open?”

DAWSON: Well, I suppose that’s true, yes. To be honest, we do call it the Open Championship, but if you look at the old footage back in the 20s and 30s it was called the British Open even then by a lot of R&A captains.

GGP:  What has your research shown on the square grooves issue and what are your expectations for the effect the new rule on grooves will have?

DAWSON: Our research show(cq), and this is very much a joint effort with the USGA, without any doubt that modern grooves in iron clubs were capable of spinning the ball from the rough as much as spinning the ball from the fairway. So the controllability from the rough or the lack of it was not causing a problem for players. They could spin a ball, as long as the lie was reasonable, out of the rough, to the same extent as they could out of the fairway. We also found that the correlation — and this is what started this — between driving accuracy and success on Tour had virtually disappeared. Straight hitters were not the most successful players, and if you went back 20 or more years, they were. And that put us onto this spin thing.

DAWSON: Our concern has been to try to restore the importance of driving accuracy to success in the game. We feel that the new grooves that will spin the ball from the fairway just as much as the existing ones but not from the rough will put more pressure on players to hit more fairways. Whether that has an effect on driving distance or not remains to be seen.

DAWSON: We have seen some balls recently that do help restore some fraction of the spin from the rough, but they’re not shorter golf balls. We haven’t yet seen the full reaction from the ball manufacturers to this so my answer to that question is premature. That wasn’t the intention. We never thought that the ball would be shorter.

DAWSON: I Don’t think we ever will. The reason I say that is course setups will be changed by the Tours. I don’t think putting the pins three paces from the edge to the degree that it’s been going on — as soon as they start to move them back to where they used to be — we’ll never have a control experiment to say this, that or the other. But I do think we’ll be able to see some driving accuracy correlation. But I’ll bet it’s inconclusive. I’ll be much more impressed by what I hear from the players than what I see from the statistics.

DAWSON: I think it’s more likely to affect a U.S. Open. I don’t think in the Open Championship we’ve seen a grooves problem, particularly because often the rough at the Open (Championship) is very thin or it’s hack out. And neither of that is really a grooves problem. And the thick rough you often get at a U.S. Open course is something we don’t see at the Open Championship. So I think it will have more affect on U.S. courses and inland courses on the European Tour.

DAWSON: It was the first joint venture, if you like, between two major championship organizers (R&A and Masters) to try to develop the game and grow the game. The concept was that by creating an elite amateur event in Asia, it would raise aspirations within the amateur game both within Asia and within countries. The carrot issue — offering a place in the Masters — was an astonishing thing for Augusta to have done and shows its real commitment. We (the R&A) went so far as to offer places in the final qualifying for the winner and the runner-up.

 
GGP: Can we look for a day when the Asian Amateur winner will qualify all the way through into the Open Championship field proper without any further qualifying?

GGP: What can Americans do? The Scots invented the game and have learned how to sustain it. In America it seems like a lot of mistakes, especially by overzealous entrepreneurs, are being made. From where you sit, what can the Americans be doing better? 

DAWSON: Let’s not knock America. America is the greatest golfing nation on earth — in terms of participation and in terms of number of golf courses and so on. I think having got such a market share for golf in America amongst the population, it’s going to be very difficult to increase it any more or even to sustain it at this point. There’s so much more competition now for leisure hours for kids and older people that we have to work very hard in America, and the U.K. as well, just to maintain the market share that we have. The American golfing public does seem to expect its courses to be highly manicured to artificial conditions to our minds, on the outside, and I’m sure in reverse they think our courses are quite scruffy. But, how can I put it, most championship golf courses here (U.S.) probably have a greens staff in excess of 50 people. Most Open Championship golf courses in the U.K. have a greens staff of 10 or 11 people.
   Now, that is not only an indication of the different approach and maybe the different grasses, but it’s also an indication of the financial effect and how much that adds to the cost of the game. Yes, most Open Championships, you go to Muirfield or Troon or whatever, they have 10 or 11 guys. That’s all they have.

GGP: So you would agree with the phrase that is gaining increasing currency that “brown is green” when it comes to golf course looks and maintenance and that less is more?

DAWSON: Brown is green. That’s quite a good way to put it, I think. When I look out my window at St. Andrews in the middle of the summer, this is honestly true, and when the 18th fairway is green we honestly say, “Oh, what a shame, it hasn’t browned off this year. We’ve gotten too much rain.” If greenkeepers at Open championship courses have put on water at any time in the three months prior to the Open Championship, I want to know about it. 

DAWSON: I wouldn’t be in the least surprised. I can’t bind future championship committees, but you know the European Amateur champion now gets into the Open Championship. And if the Asian Amateur championship goes the same way, then I’m sure future championship committees will give that strong consideration. That’s as close to a yes as I can give you.

GGP: Golf course architect Tom Doak has been very outspoken about the concept of “sustainable golf,” and he holds up Scotland as a model for the concept. As a Scot, can you talk about the need for sustainable golf and do we need to look back in order to look to the future?

DAWSON: We’ve been busy working with this now, to be honest, for the last eight years. I remember we ran a conference in Portugal in Estoril, where the European golf associations represented there called on the R&A to take the lead in environmental matters. We got to (do?) it. We have a website now called bestcourseforgolf.org, which I recommend to anyone, and we  have a definition of sustainability as the start of that website.

GGP: What’s the key?

DAWSON: It really is all about golf being, on the one hand, economically affordable, and on the other being a good neighbor in the way it uses land, the way it creates habitats for wildlife and the way it minimizes the use of water and pesticides and fertilizer, so we’ve got all these things rolled into the concept of sustainability. One is blessed in Scotland by the fact that the natural grasses that exist are good for golf and therefore they don’t need a huge amount of water. In fact, they don’t need any most years. They don’t need much by the way of fertilizer. They don’t need much by the way of pesticides.
    Also, and we found this in the Far East as well a problem, the amount of money that’s expended on clubhouses and those sorts of facilities forced golf into a very high cost area. I always think Kingsbarns near St. Andrews was a great model for this. The whole project cost about five million pounds, clubhouse included. You don’t need huge clubhouses to play golf. You need somewhere to socialize, change your shoes, maybe have a quick shower. Do you need banqueting facilities and all these things? Probably not.

GGP: The solutions?

DAWSON: I think that there are ways that golf courses can be built so much more cheaply than they have been without them having to be actually part of real estate programs in order for them to survive. Kingsbarns isn’t one of those. It’s a great piece of land. And also, we hear stories about architects almost bragging about how much earth they’ve moved and how many mountains they’ve moved to create this wonderful golf course. Well, the last thing you want to do, in my book, if you want to be sustainable, is to move a lot of earth. You want to use the terrain that’s there as far as possible. And if you’re having to move mountains, maybe there shouldn’t be a golf course there in the first place.
    It’s pretty radical stuff. But golf CAN be very affordable — as we see in Scotland and other places. It’s the way golf has to go. I think there will be a connection between golf getting into the Olympics and cheaper, more affordable golf coming along as more and more countries want to find golfers in their population who can compete for gold medals.

GGP: It’s clear that certain emerging golf nations, China foremost among them, have decided advantages over others when it comes to expecting golf growth. Are we looking through rose-colored glasses in expecting the entire world to rally around golf immediately just because of the Olympics?

DAWSON: I think we are. I think the Olympic thing will be a great boost, but it won’t be in every country. It won’t be universal. Problems like permitting and infrastructure in certain countries won’t go away just because golf is in the Olympics. And I don’t think the world should be covered in golf courses for one minute. There are other things out there for people to get involved in, but we’d certainly like to see the game grow in a lot of places, and this is going to help.

GGP: Can we expect in South America, especially with the Olympics going to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, for a similar amateur event taking place on that continent with collaboration between the R&A and the Masters?

DAWSON: I have been approached about this, not so much by Augusta, but by people in South America. The R&A has been very active down there for quite some years now. This may have raised the bar for the way amateur events are organized going forth because this was pretty special apparently and the players felt very special by being there.

GGP: The Asian Amateur late last year, with the Masters Invitation and status for the winner in the Open Championship qualifying process, was a rare experiment. Your take?

GGP: Playing conditions are very different at Open Championships than they are at U.S. Opens. Do you think the new grooves restrictions will affect one of those championships more than another?

GGP: How long will it take before you have enough data to draw some conclusions on this matter of grooves?

GGP: There are some who think, by the way, that you have effectively, either intentionally or unintentionally, shortened the ball. That by changing the grooves it’s causing the players to hit a softer golf ball.

GGP: So you wanted to make the big boys have to pay more attention off the tee?

 

 

 

 

 

Global Golf Post editor Brian Hewitt conducted a wide-ranging interview with Dawson recently in Florida. It was cool and gray and, as they sat outside, Dawson was assured that GGP had done its best to make him feel at home with the weather. He smiled.

What follows is Part I of a two-part Q&A that will conclude in next week’s edition of GGP. The subjects covered range from the changes at No. 17 at the Old Course and golf’s worldwide sustainability crisis to the advent of golf in the Olympics and Dawson’s shoulder-rubbing with Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicklaus.

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