Interview: Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club

R&A chief on alterations at this year’s Open venue, the work needed at Portrush and a brand-new Olympic ‘links’ in Brazil

You may or may not have noticed but the 2012 Open Championship started last week. The qualifying, that is. Over 36 holes at the superb Kingston Heath course in Melbourne, three Australians booked their places at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s in July. Which sounds fine until you realise that the lucky trio – Ashley Hall, Nick Cullen and Aaron Townsend – are ranked the 559th, 664th and 690th best golfers on the planet.

While it’s safe to assume that all three men are decent enough knockers, especially on home ground, it is also a pretty good bet that they will miss the cut in the championship itself. Given the generally lamentable history of those graduating through what the R&A calls International Final Qualifying (IFQ) they are more likely to be sampling the delights of Blackpool’s Golden Mile than Lytham’s gloriously demanding back nine when the final two rounds take place on July 21-22.

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Faced with that undeniably damning fact of Open life, Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, is, as ever, unmoved by the notion that IFQ does nothing but feed mediocrity into golf’s biggest and most important event.

As the spokesman for an all-male golf club charged with administering the game’s rules for both genders, he is a man well used to defending the all-but-indefensible. Having said that, the 63-year-old Cambridge graduate did display more than a little public annoyance during repeated tabloid questioning on what is clearly a touchy subject during last year’s Open at Royal St Georges, another all-male club.

So there is a limit to his patience.

“The three qualifiers last week may be ranked where they are because they haven’t had opportunities to play in Europe or America,” pointed out Lawson, pictured. “The whole idea of IFQs [another takes place in South Africa this week] is to give a small proportion of the field a crack at the ultimate dream.

“It would be easy to take the top 156 players off the world rankings, but I’m sure we would be criticised for that, too. It is difficult to find a happy medium with these things. The vast majority of the Open field is there through their performance at the top level of the game. But we still want to leave spots available to qualifiers. And we do want to maintain the Open’s status as the most international of the four majors. Hence the IFQs.

“Having said that, I do acknowledge that the performances of those making it through the IFQs not held in the US have not been that great. It’s something we are constantly looking at. But we are not at the point of change yet.”

Also energising the active Dawson brain at the moment is the notion that Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland – which hosted the Open in 1951 – is deserving of a second visit. He has already been over to take what was meant to be a surreptitious look at the course and the surrounding infrastructure.

“I enjoyed my visit. It’s a great golf course,” he enthuses. “But it hasn’t had the ‘treatment’ that other Open courses have had and some of that would be required. One or two holes need some changes. And there are layout issues. It’s not obvious where the practice ground would go, for example. Or where the tented village could be sited.

“What was heartening was to see the standard of the roads around Portrush and the number of places to stay. There isn’t one big hotel but there are any number of medium-sized ones. The biggest question, of course, is the commercial aspect of going to Ireland. Plus, spectator movement would be difficult. There is a lot of bracken and stuff off the fairways. Even if that were removed, the terrain is so severe it is hard to imagine armies of spectators out there. The course is almost too good to have spectators on it.

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“Anyway, no decision has yet been made. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that we are going there. But we do have more people going over to have a look relatively soon. And we will be very interested to see how the course copes commercially and in terms of spectator movement when the Irish Open is held there later this year. So we are taking it seriously.

“As for the political situation in Northern Ireland every July, we would be guided by the authorities in that area. We always take risk assessments and look at threat levels through the police. But I find it hard to imagine that anyone over there would do anything to upset the Open. That would be in no one’s interests.”

More pressing, of course, is the upcoming visit to Lytham, England’s second consecutive Open for the first time in the championship’s 152-year history.

“The course is coming along nicely,” says Dawson. “We’ve lengthened the holes by about 200 yards since we were last there in 2001. We’ve re-bunkered the second hole. The third is longer and both holes have a lot of new mounding to the left of the fairways. There’s a new tee at the fifth. And the sixth will be a par-4, not a par-5, with new bunkers in the dogleg.

“The seventh will see the biggest change. It has a new green, further back and left. The old green was always a bit ‘Mickey Mouse’ so that is good. The tenth has a new tee, as has the 11th, right on top of the sandhill back and left of the tenth green.

“That sounds like a lot of change. But it is still Lytham. I’ve always been a fan of the course. It’s a very subtle and good test. It’s [five-times Open champion] Peter Thomson’s favourite, which says a lot.”

Even more immediately, Dawson, as president of the International Golf Federation, is off to Brazil next month for the announcement of the man or woman who will be charged with the design of the course that will be used for the sport’s Olympic return at Rio De Janeiro in 2016.

“The site is in place,” he says. “We have a shortlist of eight architects. A jury of four people will make the final decision on who gets the job. There will be a representative of Rio 2016, another from the city of Rio and two from the IGF.

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“It’s a very sandy site, or at least a good part of it is. And it is quite near the sea. The biggest challenge is to create a championship course that also has legacy. From what I have seen, it will be pretty good, even though it won’t get away from buildings. It is in the city.

“At the bottom end of the course there is a lagoon with mangroves. But, higher up, it is sandy. So at least part of it will be quite ‘linksy’ looking. But it won’t play like a links. And it certainly won’t be tree-lined. All in all, it will present the architect with a nice variety of land to work with. After the Olympics it will be a public course with a practice area and an academy.”

Presumably that academy will be open to both men and women.

Just kidding Peter, just kidding.