Game thankful to retiring R&A chief Peter Dawson

Peter Dawson in charge of his last Open in July. Picture: Getty
Peter Dawson in charge of his last Open in July. Picture: Getty
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HE’S finishing so he started. Less than two weeks after standing on Royal Lytham’s first tee announcing the names of the players in the Walker Cup matches between Great Britain & Ireland and the United States – a tough gig indeed – Peter Dawson will this coming Friday stand down after 16 years as the chief executive of golf’s rules makers outside the US and Mexico, the R&A.

Sitting with members of the golfing press last Sunday – those he accuses of being “overly negative” – between first tee duties, the only Scot ever to play in the English Amateur Championship was in generally jovial mode, sharing some warm and fuzzy anecdotes about his time in the Auld Grey Toon. And only half an hour before that, in conversation with this column – one he accuses of being “really negative” – Dawson was almost as friendly. Only occasionally did he disturb the coziness with a sarcastic jibe. No complaints there, of course. Fair is fair after all.

So what to make of this man and his time in charge at the R&A?

Since 1999, when Dawson took over from the previous occupant of the office high above the Old Course’s first tee, Sir Michael Bonallack, two big things have been achieved. First, the corporate business of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club was separated from the day-to-day doings of the membership to form the aforementioned body, the R&A. Then, almost exactly one year ago, the obvious anomaly that was an all-male organisation making the rules for all golfers, men and women, was removed forever.

There has too, been a transformation in the internal workings of the R&A. Yes, there remains much truth to the stereotypical member asleep in the Big Room of the clubhouse under a copy of the Times. But those who work up the road from that iconic building on the Open Championship, the rules of golf and the myriad other aspects of company business are younger, sharper and, with only a few exceptions, vibrant contributors to much of the good work done by the R&A. For that fact alone, Dawson deserves much credit.

“The R&A now has a much younger feel to it than it had when I was an amateur,” confirms former Open champion Padraig Harrington. “The organisation as a whole has changed hugely during Peter’s tenure. Today, the R&A is very progressive. The old ‘fuddy-duddy’ image of the club no longer applies. They have moved on, largely, I’m sure, due to Peter’s influence.”

In those obvious respects Dawson has been a great success. Which was no surprise. A Cambridge graduate in general engineering and a bit of business studies – “You can do three things at university: play sport, socialise and work. My theory is that you can do two out of the three. You can guess which two I did” – he was hired because of his impressive track record in business. Before taking over at the R&A, Dawson was a high-ranking executive with the world’s biggest maker of hydraulic cranes, Grove Manufacturing, an American company owned by the Hansen Group.

“In the early days, my concentration was more on the commercial side,” he says. “We did need to raise our game there, in terms of optimising the Open’s commercial performance. We created a commercial department and that has done well. There is no doubt that the Open is the engine of everything the R&A does. So we have to get it right. That then allows us to do so many other things well.”

Still, for all that, not everything Dawson has touched has turned to bronze, never mind gold. Most notably, the R&A’s failure – along with the United States Golf Association – to control the distances top players can propel the modern golf ball with their over-sized metal-headed drivers has caused much anguish amongst those who yearn for a better game and a better time. It is a sad fact that golf at the highest level these days is a sport dominated by science. Artistic players such as Seve Ballesteros and Lee Trevino are, sadly, all but no more.

Also open to much debate has been the meddling with the set-up and design of the courses on the Open Championship rota. Compelled by a ball that flies too far – and too straight – Dawson has overseen the lengthening and toughening of all, including, most controversially, the Old Course.

Since 1995, the last St Andrews Open before Dawson’s arrival, golf’s most famous venue has endured more facelifts than Anne Robinson, Barry Manilow and Dolly Parton combined. All have been done because the R&A were asleep at the equipment wheel and now are forced into more and more egregious measures just to keep scores within acceptable levels.

Tees now exist outside the Old Course boundaries. Long grass grows in places it has no business growing. Many bunkers have been re-shaped to the point where they are almost perfectly round and are now surrounded by rough. New bunkers have also been added in places they simply should not be. A depression on the seventh fairway was filled in because – heaven forbid – the world’s most talented golfers might just have to play from a poor lie. Instead of being mowed to an appropriate speed, the 11th green has been “de-sloped”. And, most offensively, the area around the world famous Road Hole Bunker has been manipulated.

“The issues we have with clubs and balls have been the most intellectually demanding in my time at the R&A, both technically and philosophically,” says Dawson. “Everyone thinks that, when they played, that is how golf should be played. You never heard Jack Nicklaus say he really should be playing with Bobby Jones’ clubs. You never heard Bobby Jones saying he should be playing with Old Tom Morris’ equipment. And apart from one or two, the best players today are just as silent. They’re not saying they should play with Jack’s equipment.”

That silence is, of course, bought and paid for by the equipment companies through the contracts those leading players sign to use their clubs. But please continue.

“It’s a balance between maintaining the skill level required to play the sport and responding to the call of golfers for better equipment,” argues Dawson. “That has been the case since the game began. And it remains the biggest issue in golf. There are those who call for a split in the rules between the elite and the rest. I think that is an awful prospect. We all want to play the same game. There is a huge gap between Roger Federer and the club tennis player, but they both play by the same rules and they both play the same game. Golf is the same. We don’t need to dumb it down.”

One last thing: there is another aspect of his job in which Dawson has failed miserably. Ever since the British Youths Championship was killed off in 1994 – “the top amateurs were nearly all of that age (under-22). So it became the Amateur essentially” – the trophy has remained in the hands of the last winner, Fredrik Jacobson. Despite Dawson’s best efforts, the Swede simply won’t give it back.

Hey, no one is perfect. But I’ll miss him terribly.