In Part II of Global Golf Post’s exclusive interview with R&A boss Peter Dawson, we learn the significant, but little-known distinction between The R&A and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. Dawson takes us behind the scenes at Copenhagen late last year where golf gained admission to the Olympics. And finally, Dawson reflects on rubbing shoulders with living legends like Jack Nicklaus and Clint Eastwood as one of the perks of his position.
DAWSON: Very. Very. Prior to 2004, the club — the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews — did everything and we (The R&A) took the view that that wasn’t appropriate for modern conditions. So we separated the club to be now simply a member’s club at St. Andrews. And we separated the club from all of our external activities — running championships, rule-making, giving money away for golf development — and we put that into a corporate structure.
DAWSON: The R&A makes the rules, runs the Open; runs all of our championships; runs all of our team matches; gives the money away. We also created at the time, by the way, The R&A Foundation through which the amount of our giving that is charitable is channeled through. The R&A is a business entity. It’s for profit. It makes profit. Although we try not to make huge profits, we make enough to leave in reserve for a rainy day, we give as much as we can away for golf-development projects.
GGP: So “The” R&A is not the same as the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which has decided, among other things, to not allow women members, which is something you guys at The R&A get hammered for on occasion.
DAWSON: We do, but let me tell you something about that: St. Andrews is a misunderstood golf community in a sense. The model is quite similar to other public links in Scotland. The golf courses at St. Andrews are all public. Men and women, young and old, domestic and foreign can come and play to their hearts’ content. There are five private clubs around the links that share the courses with the visitors to the town. Three of those clubs, of which the Royal and Ancient is one, are men only. Two of them are women only. And they’re really places to go change and then go play golf. And these clubs all mix in with one another. There are more women that play golf at St. Andrews that I know of than any other place in the world.
DAWSON: Well, it was an issue with some IOC members, not specifically The R&A. I think other clubs were more on their minds at the time. But we did deal with it. If we thought that it was really bad for golf, I think we’d take a different view of it. We don’t think it’s bad for golf, and I don’t think there’s any substantive evidence that it is.
Future generations of members of The R&A and other single-sex clubs may take a different view of this. They may find this very odd and something they want to change. And if that’s what they want to do, good on them. The current membership and the current prospective membership, of which there’s a big number, doesn’t seem to have a problem with it.
GGP: Speaking of golf in the Olympics, how do you see the so-called “Race To Rio” playing out in advance of 2016?
DAWSON: There are actually a number of projects on the drawing board that were not exactly Olympic-associated but happened to be coming along. They are subject to what the Rio organizing committee thinks — and we haven’t had a substantive conversation yet because the IOC has only just finished its preliminary visit to Rio to talk to the organizing committee.
DAWSON: I have never received so many messages in such a short period of time — people just energized by this. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for it for so long, they’ve released this fantastic feeling of, “Wow, this is what we’ve been waiting for and now we can go develop our sport.” Some of that may be a little bit over the top. But clearly there’s a pent-up energy out there from countries that golf has, I suppose, been a second-class sport in terms of how it was perceived by their governments and their people, who now really feel like they’ve got a chance to do something about it. By God, it was heartening. It really was.
GGP: Speaking of the hard work, the IOC, depending on whom you talk to, is either famous or infamous. What was it like working with the IOC?
DAWSON: It is an unusual organization compared to what we have in golf. Maybe we’re unusual and they’re normal. I’m not sure which it is. Let me say this: The staff of the IOC is astonishingly professional. Can you imagine? I mean I think we have a tough job putting the Open Championship together. Imagine what it must be like putting an Olympic Games together. What a job. Think about how hard that is. These people, along with the organizing committees, they’re very, very professional indeed.
The process that was used this time to evaluate the sports, I was very impressed by. And I was very impressed, as well, by the executive board of the IOC and how it took on board our presentation.
GGP: I gather they like it that way.
DAWSON: I guess they do. It’s the way it always has been. I think the IOC is set up that way for very good reasons. There is history going back to Coubertin’s time. We’re not going to change the IOC. That’s for sure. It’s there and we want to work — we have to work — with them the way they have to be worked with.
GGP: Will you and Ty Votaw (U.S. PGA Tour official) continue to be point men for golf in ongoing discussions with the IOC?
DAWSON: Interfacing with the IOC, just year-to-year as well as running an Olympic event, is a time-consuming and costly occupation and we need to have in golf an organization structure that’s capable of doing that on one hand and represent the game on the other. I know Ty and I have a great affection for this now but there is no way that I or he can do it as well as our everyday jobs. That’s out of the question. There are many other fish for us to fry. We have to find a way of interfacing with the IOC yet keeping all the good things that we already have in the way golf works.
GGP: Is a global handicapping system necessary? Is it practical?
DAWSON: If there were to be one, it would most likely be done by the USGA because such a large part of the golfing world operates under them. There are many of us in other parts of the world who would be quite resistant to that because here we regard match golf as the way to be played at pace. We don’t want to be handing scorecards in every time you play and this kind of stuff. It’d be nice to have but I’m not sure how practical it would be. I know at our members’ meetings at the Royal And Ancient Golf Club, it’s quite an issue. Suddenly, you’ve got people coming in who want to adjust their handicaps because of something called Slope Rating. What? Yours is 3-handicap, play to it. No, I get seven shots. You get these crazy arguments. The South Africans and the Australians come in with their ideas, the Europeans, the Brits theirs. In some ways it’s desirable, and to be quite honest, consistency in handicapping is something that has made us go to the World Amateur Rankings for criteria for our amateur events because we found that handicapping was not an effective way of doing it.
GGP: Could we ever have a single set of Rules?
DAWSON: You wouldn’t start with a clean sheet of paper. But, in a sense, having the USA with half the world’s golfers and The R&A with the other half and getting quite detailed views from their constituencies and coming together and bashing them out is no bad thing. I’ve often thought having one body would be good but I wonder if we’d actually do it as well as two bodies working closely together do, and it’s got a long history to it, this, well over 100 years now. We’ve had our ups and downs in the past but I think it has served the game not too badly.
GGP: Final question: A personal one. You’ve got an interesting job and you’ve spent time with a lot of interesting people from Clint Eastwood to former U.S. President Bill Clinton to the Duke of York. Do you have one interesting story or a special memory?
DAWSON: I wouldn’t have guessed 11 or 12 years ago that this would have happened to me and it has. The people I’ve met have been astonishing. Bill Clinton, as you’ve mentioned. Clint Eastwood. I remember when he came to lunch at The R&A he was most impressed when I remembered the name Gil Favor, the foreman in the old TV series “Rawhide,” where Clint had played Rowdy Yates. We were like “that” (two fingers close together) after that. And stuff like. F. W. De Clerk left quite an impression with me after lunch. You might argue he sorted out the South African problem more than Nelson Mandela.
GGP: Were you nervous at Copenhagen?
DAWSON: Actually, I was feeling pretty good. Then 24 hours in advance it was decided I was going to do the first bit in French, one of the official languages of the Olympics. That reduced me to a gibbering idiot. My French was schoolboy, but I got through it. The only problem is if you make a mistake in English, you can get out of it. If your French starts to go wrong, you’re in trouble.