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.