PETER Dawson, the outgoing R&A chief executive, has described Tiger Woods’ spectacular slump as “sad” but is hoping a return to St Andrews in three weeks’ time for the 144th Open Championship might provide a spark for the struggling American to re-ignite his career.
Following his latest poor performance – he missed the US Open cut by 11 strokes after rounds of 80 and 76 at Chambers Bay – Woods has dropped another ten places to 205th in the world rankings, having started the year in 32nd.
His next outing will be at the home of golf, where Woods has lifted the Claret Jug twice – winning by eight shots in 2000 for his first victory in the world’s oldest major then recording a five-shot success five years later.
“I feel for him,” Dawson said of Woods, in his first interview since being awarded an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list. “In my time at the R&A, he has been the No 1 player for a long, long time. Great draw in golf, great player.
“Arguably, he is the best player there has ever been and it is sad to see him not playing as well. But I wouldn’t underestimate his determination to get back. I haven’t spoken to him for quite a while, so I don’t know what he’s is thinking. But he was one of the early entries for St Andrews and he agreed to play in the past champions’ four-hole event, so we are looking forward to seeing him.
“We are looking forward to his form returning, and it seems his form on the practice ground is very impressive. So it’s in there somewhere. You would hope his memories of St Andrews would rekindle something. No-one would love to see him back playing well more than me.”
Dawson’s last Open at the helm – he retires in September – will be the first on the Old Course since changes were made to the historic layout. At the time, they were criticised, with Ian Poulter, for one, describing the work as “insane”. However, Dawson insisted that the alterations have been well received in the interim and, indeed, it is likely that the world’s best players will be happy to be back on a traditional links after many felt the US Open test in Washington State had been too much of a lottery.
“I’ve never been to Chambers Bay, but it looks pretty spectacular,” admitted Dawson. “The scenery is wonderful, and it’s an exciting layout, I think. You have to play good golf shots to get it close there. I’ve read some of the comments from the players about the greens, but not having seen them myself I can’t possibly comment. It’s just what I’ve seen on television.”
Turning to the Old Course, he added: “There were changes before every one of the more recent Opens, and we were very pleased with the changes that have gone in. Most people who have played the course don’t realise that the changes were made, frankly.
“Probably the two most noticeable changes are at nine, with the bunker on the left, and on the 11th green, flattening out the left side. There’s great history there with Bobby Jones in the bunker [the American walked off the course after failing four times to escape from it].
“With the green speeds, you couldn’t have put a pin position in July on the left. Now we’ve got two more pin positions there. I was out there when Tom Watson played it recently. He took a 5-iron and was quite close.”
Asked if he’d been approached by any prominent player with a complaint about the changes, Dawson insisted: “No, quite the opposite. Ernie [Els], the last time he was in St Andrews, was very complimentary about the bunker at nine. He felt it needed it.”
After 16 years in the post, Dawson is set to be succeeded by Martin Slumbers, who is shadowing his predecessor at present.
It’s been a busy end to Dawson’s reign, with women members being admitted to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews for the first time, a television deal being struck to take the Open Championship to Sky Sports from 2017 onwards and talks taking place about a possible merger between the R&A and the Ladies Golf Union.
“That’s a hard one,” admitted Dawson when asked to pick out his proudest moment in the job. “There are a lot of things. The way The Open has progressed, the way the game of golf has been governed well by the R&A and the USGA. There haven’t been many scandals in golf like in other sports.”
He said it had been “nice” to be awarded an OBE but insisted that had been earned through a “team effort” at the R&A. With his last Amateur Championship done and dusted – he watched Frenchman Romain Langasque come out on top against Scot Grant Forrest in Saturday’s final at Carnoustie – Dawson’s focus is now totally on the Open Championship.
“I don’t know – it’s hard to tell,” he said in reply to being asked if there might be a lump in his throat when he announces the “Champion Golfer of the Year” for the last time.
“St Andrews Opens have a special atmosphere, no question about that. Something will come up, no doubt! We’ll have to wait and see what it is.”