PETER Dawson, the R&A chief executive, has admitted the timescale between announcing changes to the Old Course and the work starting was “condensed”.
However, in addition to receiving widespread local support, he also believes the critics in the wider golfing world are beginning to come round to “sympathetic” alterations aimed at addressing the “weaknesses” of the St Andrews venue.
Dawson said the announcement a fortnight ago that changes were being made to nine holes on the historic course was as much a case of letting St Andreans know that work was starting – though there was nothing in the joint press release issued by the R&A and the Links Trust that it would be happening three days later – than a major announcement about arguably the most famous course in golf.
He also insisted plenty of changes had already been made to the Old Course over the years, pointing to pictorial evidence as proof of that, and believes Martin Hawtree is the perfect man to be implementing the alterations as “one of his great strengths is making changes look as though they have always been there”.
In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman, Dawson first addressed why it seemed as though the changes, which have prompted criticism from some of the game’s greatest players – five-time Open champion Peter Thomson, for instance, described what is happening as being “like a bad dream” – had been rushed through without a proper consultation process.
“You would have to ask the Links Trust about consultation because that was their exercise,” he said. “I’m not trying to pass the buck to the Links Trust, but they handled all the local conversations that took place, we didn’t. That is the normal practice as they have the courses. If we were making alterations at Royal Troon, it would be Royal Troon that would talk to the members, not us unless we were requested to join in.
“The best time of year to do anything like this, turfing etc, is November into early December. If it hadn’t gotten started when it did we would have been waiting another year for the best season to do it in. That wasn’t something that anyone wanted.
“The timescale, I guess, did get a bit condensed but the local reaction, which is normally the most difficult thing in terms of changes to St Andrews, has been very supportive. I personally haven’t received any criticism from anyone other than what I’ve read in the media. There’s been no local issues at all that have come on to my desk.
“I know there are people in the media trying to call as many local people as they can find trying to find someone to criticise and I suspect the media have been a bit surprised how difficult that has been. I’m out there talking to the green staff and people I know and, to a man and a woman, they have all said they like the look of what is being done.
“Anything that is going to change the character, the way the course strategy needs to be handled and so on is what I’d call major and there is none of that happening. I think people here see that. When you live here and you walk and play the course, either in the Dunhill or with your mates, over the years you come to know what the strengths and very few weaknesses of the Old Course are. It is just those few weaknesses that we have tried to address in as symphatetic manner as possible.
“I would say there was quite a lot of comment about the changes from people who have not been able to take the time to study what they are. As people have become more familiar with what the changes are, a lot of the criticism has actually turned into reasonable support. I think some of the announcement was directed at telling local people that there was going to be work on the course as opposed to some great international announcement about Old Course re-design. It was never meant to be that but, of course, in this modern era as soon as you announce something in the darkest corner of Fife it appears in Japan in a nano-second.”
Tom Doak, the American course designer, said he was “horrified” to learn that changes were being made to the Old Course while British colleague Ross McMurray claimed it should be designated as a “historical landscape”. However, Dawson said he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about given the course has already changed quite a bit over the years. “I’ve got a book of pictures right here on my desk and it’s for every hole on the Old Course,” he added. “It’s been a case of greenkeepers making tweaks here and there. For instance, there are three bunkers that were there in the 1940s that are no longer on the Old Course. Almost every bunker on the course is smaller now and there used to be little or no rough to the left of the 17th in the drive zone. That’s a huge change.
“There are one or two holes, notably the ninth and the 12th, that were much narrower off the tee due to the rough and the heather, particularly the ninth on the left. That’s why, funny enough, we were thinking about putting another hazard in there to tighten the drive up. It seems that in the old days that was achieved by heather.
“There’s nothing in these old pictures that I find troublesome in respect to what is being done now. The main point is that the course has always evolved and always changed. I’m looking at a picture right now where the shape of the 18th green is completely different to what it is now. It is much squarer and extends further across to the first tee than it does now.
“I think students of the Old Course know what has happened in the past. Scott Macpherson’s book (St Andrews: The Evolution of the Old Course)is a very good bible on this. I know that he is one of those guys who thinks that some degree of evolution is inevitable and, indeed, desirable.”
Dawson claimed the disquiet over the work had “already quietened down” but he ruled out more changes being proposed by the R&A in the near future. “As the course evolves, I would imagine changes will be made in the future, but I don’t imagine you will be hearing any more suggestions from us for a long time,” he said.
The current changes will be given a global airing next summer when the Old Course stages the Women’s British Open. “The world’s press will be able to see the changes then and I think they will be able to see why what we have done is a good thing. A classic example is the 11th green, which is one of the changes that did seem to cause a lot of comment. There hasn’t been a summer pin position on the left half of the green for years. Anyone who thinks that is a good thing would have to come and explain that to me as I just can’t get my head round that.”
Dawson on the changes
First-phase changes: This winter
17th Road Hole Bunker
“The work is virtually finished. These changes are so ‘major’ they’ve been done in less than a week! Let’s get this in perspective. The Road Bunker is rebuilt every year because it gets so much play and so much damage.
“Historically, it has been left to the greenkeepers to rebuild it. That means it has never been rebuilt the same way twice. The bunker has always changed in depth, and quite often changed in shape, and quite often the approach contours have changed a bit.
“All we are doing this time is trying to finalise a design, and properly map it digitally so that every time it is rebuilt, it is rebuilt to remain faithful to what it was before. The bunker is not being made any harder. It is also not being widened to any extent that it hasn’t been in the past on several occasions.”
“We want a left-hand pin position and a left-hand back-pin position, which we currently don’t have. That will bring Hill Bunker into play on the left.
“The issue is that at old green speeds, before mowers were properly invented and greens were four on the stimpmeter or something like that, you could get a pin position on the left-hand side. But now when we are at 10.5 in the summer and in The Open, we found that you couldn’t get a pin there that wasn’t Mickey Mouse. We almost put a pin there [in 2010], but we thought if the wind blows it’s going to be very unfair. The left hand of that green has been unusable. Not just for The Open, but for normal play as well, except in the winter when the greens are slower. It restores the hole to the variety it used to have. All that has happened is that we have eased off the slope a little bit on the left-hand side.”
“There is a hollow in the fairway, a collection area, where balls go into and it’s full of divots. You’ve almost got to make it ground under repair for part of the season.
“That dip has been filled in and turned into a very slight mound. It is now very slightly convex as opposed to concave, so it will spread balls around the fairway.”
“This will be the most noticeable change this winter. We don’t use the bottom part of the green on the right-hand side at Championship time because it’s far too easy. The reason it’s too easy is that the land to right of the green is very, very flat and you are on grass that is as good as putting greens at most courses. So there is almost no premium for hitting the green.
“What we are planning to do there is make the flat part to the right of the green slightly undulating. It will be just enough to make you think about what line you’ve got to take with the putter. There are two bunkers short and right 25 yards away from the green and I can’t get the hang of why they are there. No one is ever in them and so they are being moved closer to the green.”
Second-phase changes: Next winter
“The whole issue is that if you hit it left off the tee you get a safe drive. If hit you hit up the right you get risk and reward. You get a better line into the green but the hazards [bunkers] come into play. The bunkering on the third doesn’t extend far enough up the hole for it to be a risk to drive up the right.
“I reckon you could carry all the bunkers with persimmon, not just modern clubs. So the proposal is to create another bunker further up the right in line with the others, and take the first fairway bunker out. So we’ll have the same number of bunkers.”
“Again, if you drive it up the right you should have an advantage. Drive it up the left you will have a safer drive but not such a good line in. At the moment, if you drive it up the left and then miss the green on the right, which players often do, you are in a very flat area beside the green.
“So we are going to put some very gentle undulations right of the green similar to the second hole. There is also a bunker to the right of the fourth green that we are going to move closer to the putting surface.”
“The area to the right of the sixth green merging with the seventh tee is flat and we are going to undulate that a little bit. We’ve done quite a lot of this at Muirfield, and you wouldn’t even know we’ve done it.”
“There is a proposal for a new bunker about 25 yards short of the green on the left. The idea there is to increase the risk-reward ratio of having a go at the green. Looking at old photographs, the rough on the left was heather and came into what is now fairway by about ten yards so it was a much tighter tee shot in the past.”
“If you hit it over the green then there is a very flat area to the right of the back bunker as you look at the hole. It’s easy to just putt from there back on to the green. So we are going to undulate that area slightly too, just to make missing the green long slightly more penal.”