Peter Dawson: Unstuffed shirt of the R&A unruffled by winds of change

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Peter Dawson is standing on the 18th fairway at Royal Troon showing flagrant disregard for advice he was once given by the BBC's Steve Rider, never to be photographed with the wind behind you.

Peter Dawson is standing on the 18th fairway at Royal Troon showing flagrant disregard for advice he was once given by the BBC's Steve Rider, never to be photographed with the wind behind you.

The wind looms large in my conversation with Dawson, who is secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and therefore grand panjandrum at next week's Open Championship. At Troon, he says, it is normally at your back for most of the outward nine, and in your face coming home. "The strategy is to make your score going out, and defend it like stink coming in." A chuckle. "Mind you, I was at Hoylake recently and a member said to me the prevailing wind is from the south-west, but I've never known it come from there."

Dawson has been visiting Hoylake because the course is back on the championship rota, due to host the Open in 2006. The R&A suits - or, let's be accurate about this, the R&A blazers - start looking at an Open venue about three years in advance, deciding how the course should be modified.

There then ensue friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly discussions with the host club. "But there's rarely a problem. It's mostly to do with tees that most members never see, let alone use, and we can do things with the rough and the bunkers on a pretty short-term basis."

At Troon, 10 new bunkers have been added, and a couple of new tees. The course is about 100 yards longer than it was when the Open was last played there, in 1997. But how tough it will be depends, as always, on the weather.

And that means the weather of the past three months as well as of the next eight days.

"Links golf usually goes two ways," Dawson explains. "When we have a wet spring we get thick rough and a soft golf course. When there is a dry spring we don't get much rough but a very firm and fast golf course, which is the one we prefer.

"This is a peculiar year, because it was pretty dry during the growing season but wet since, so the rough is not as high as people might be expecting, yet the course is on the soft side. Still, a few dry days will soon sort that out."

Whether it is wet or dry, as Dawson prepares for the 133rd Open there are certain names which represent little rain clouds over his head. Carnoustie is one, Mark Roe is another. Not so the name of Ben Curtis. Unsurprisingly, Dawson admits to no consternation that the American, who was not only a rank outsider but also a rank unknown, won the precious Claret Jug last year.

But I wonder. It was one thing for Maria Sharapova to win at Wimbledon; she is clearly the Next Great Thing in women's tennis. And victory for Greece at Euro 2004 will perhaps offer, when the shock is fully digested, a salutary lesson for Europe's so-called football powers.

But could it not be argued that Curtis's win, highly romantic as it was, devalued the great championship? After all, his subsequent record is more in keeping with his stature before the 132nd Open than after it. In stroke-play events he has managed only one top-10 finish, and missed cuts in the USPGA and the Masters.

Dawson disagrees. "Curtis had Davis Love, Tiger Woods, Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh, four of the world's best players, all breathing down his neck on the final nine holes. Each of them had an opportunity to win. Besides, he is a super chap and he's been a great champion. I actually think he might win a lot more events before he's finished."

But probably not this Open, which will continue a strange pattern that Dawson concedes does bother him. "We haven't had a repeat winner in the last 10 years. Greg Norman [in 1993] was the last who'd won before. And that is slightly concerning. There is a much bigger pool of players able to win now, but it sometimes makes one wonder if the golf courses are set up too difficult for one player to stamp his authority. Of course, it's easy with hindsight to criticise a course set-up; it's very difficult in advance to know whether we've done the right thing."

Carnoustie 1999 - where the course was manifestly unfair, with narrow ribbons of fairway between rough like elephant grass - remains the template for doing the wrong thing. At the time, Dawson was on the R&A's payroll but only as secretary-in-training, as Sir Michael Bonallack approached the end of his tenure.

"I learnt a lot from that," says Dawson, with a wry smile. "Mistakes were made for sure. The weather conspired to make the rough grow very quickly quite late, but there was also a desire on the part of Carnoustie to make it the hardest course anyone had ever seen. And perhaps we weren't spending as much time on it [course preparation] as we might have done. But I don't want to criticise anyone. It stood me in very good stead."

We are now back in Dawson's temporary office, a Portakabin in the car park of the Troon clubhouse. If the Open has a nerve centre, this Portakabin is it. Indeed, while I am sitting on the other side of his desk, Dawson takes a phone call from five-times champion Tom Watson, who is withdrawing because of a dicky shoulder. "Tom, what a shame, what a great shame, we're going to miss you and the spectators are ... no, hell ... there's no need to apologise."

In Dawson's former life, even as a captain of the manufacturing industry, a member of the R&A, and a golfer with a decent although hardly Bonallack-like pedigree (he was a county player and Cambridge Blue), he could hardly have expected to wind up on first-name terms with Tom Watson. Engagingly, he still gets a kick out of this aspect of the job, telling me that he has hosted both Bill Clinton and Clint Eastwood, separately I think, for lunch in the R&A clubhouse. And I don't doubt that he has hobnobbed plenty with the R&A captain, the Duke of York, in what is the year of the club's 250th anniversary. "He sometimes gets a bad press, but he has done a super job, he really has done this job extremely well," says the secretary of the captain, non-treasonably.

Still, I don't expect Dawson ever dishes out praise where it doesn't belong, even to royalty. Moreover, he is clearly a man of considerable competence himself, more than capable of filling Bonallack's capacious boots. And he is highly personable, in my experience not always a virtue associated with golf club secretaries.

Personable as he is, though, he administers a game which is widely held to be institutionally stuffy, as the head of an institution considered by some to be one of the stuffiest things about it. I am interested to hear how he defends golf from the charge of stuffiness, and with it the R&A - which unlike even the Marylebone Cricket Club, still does not accept women members.

If he is irritated by the question, the genteel Edinburgh vowels do not betray it. "I have never found golf to be particularly stuffy," he says, equably. "There are issues like dress codes, which could be modernised here and there. But I put it to you that golf is administered in a way that many other sports would envy. You don't hear about drugs scandals or gambling scandals or cheating in this game. As for single-sex golf clubs, 99.5 per cent of golf clubs in Britain are not single-sex. To say that one half of one per cent is having any influence on what is happening at golf clubs up and down the country is arithmetically unsound."

He is being, I venture, just a tad disingenuous. The half of one per cent includes the R&A, which wields more influence than all the other clubs added together. "Yes, but we don't run women's golf. The LGU [Ladies' Golf Union] exists. Now, I don't know whether the MCC is a better or worse or different place for having done it [accepted women]. I'm not a member of the MCC. What I do know is that I get 500 calls from the media every year about this and four from the general public. It's a media issue."

Fair enough. Let us turn instead to another issue which fuelled the accusation that golf is hidebound rather than enhanced by tradition, the disqualification from last year's Open of Mark Roe and Jesper Parnevik, for failing to swap scorecards. It was, Dawson acknowledges, his worst nightmare, especially with Roe in such strong contention.

"But the Rules of Golf are written to cater for golf at all levels. It might appear ridiculous to the man on the Clapham omnibus that a chap can clearly go round in 67 and then be disqualified on a technical infringement. However, those rules are important when it comes to the monthly medal at the golf club, where they don't have television cameras."

Nevertheless, steps have been taken to help ensure that a similar business does not recur. At Troon there will not be such a mêlée in the recorder's hut, where the players officially post their score. And the recorders will henceforth be from the R&A, rather than volunteers from the host club. "But I should add that the players sometimes don't help themselves," Dawson adds. "They don't always take kindly to being asked, 'Is this your scorecard?' They can get quite abusive."

To return to his point about the Rules of Golf being similarly applied whether in the Open Championship at Troon or a monthly medal at Pott Shrigley, this is also true of technology. In other words, it's all very well limiting the amount of flex in the shaft if the object is to stop Woods reducing a 550-yard par-five to a drive and a seven-iron, but not if the same constraints also take 20 yards off the 15-handicapper's 180-yard drive.

"It is intellectually a very demanding question," Dawson says. "We have to maintain the challenge of the game at the élite end, while at the same time ensuring that worse than average players retain their enjoyment, and that we maintain a manufacturing industry that supplies equipment to the game. Because if we completely stifle innovation, the manufacturing industry will decline.

"But we have limited the coefficient of restitution in the driver head." Don't ask. I didn't. "And we have limited the head size. It is quite difficult now to see where the next big technological leap forward will come, and in fact average driving distances this year are down. Having said that, there has always been a leap forward. Someone will think of something we haven't thought of. But in the meantime, if we start making different rules for the élite, it will be the thin end of a thickening wedge."

Perhaps, I muse, the Thickening Wedge could be that next leap forward. It could be a useful club for those little half-pitch shots. But this is no time for frivolity. On the contrary, I want to discuss drugs. At the moment there is no drugs-testing in golf, nor any imminent prospect of it, as the R&A, the United States Golf Association, and the various Tours cannot agree on a coherent strategy. Yet it is likely to become an issue, not least because the International Olympic Committee is considering whether to restore golf as an Olympic sport, probably in time for the 2012 Games.

Dawson is keen to see golf become an Olympic sport again, as it was in the early 20th century. Although there is no great enthusiasm among the major golf-playing nations, he tells me, the smaller ones are dead keen, because it would give the game a higher profile, not to mention government funding.

On the subject of drugs-testing, however, he seems ambivalent, and isn't even sure whether golfing performance can be artificially enhanced. "Obviously there are drugs which can build you up, but you don't want to get musclebound. It's a strange mixture of explosive power and complete calm."

It is the man who tomorrow week has best combined that explosive power and complete calm who will have the privilege of being announced, by Dawson, as the Champion Golfer of the Year.

Golf's greatest Peter Dawson's five favourite open championships

2000

The top one for me has to be Tiger Woods' win at St Andrews in 2000. It was millennium year, at the home of golf, and he was the best player in the world winning with a fantastic score in tremendous weather conditions. We also had the past champions' challenge that year, on the Wednesday night. It was my first Open as secretary of the R&A. I had to give a little speech introducing the past champions, and then the speech announcing the winner, which was terrifying. But I got through it.

1969

I think the Open I'll never forget, and in many ways the greatest moment for me as a golf fan, was Tony Jacklin's victory at 1969 at Royal Lytham St Annes. It had been so long since a British player had done it and I remember watching on television with tears in my eyes. I can remember it so clearly, that wonderful drive he hit down the last, the pitch shot, the putt that stayed on the lip. Marvellous. I was only 21 but I knew the significance of it. And then he won the US Open the following year. The whole business of American dominance was turned on its head.

1984

The win by Seve Ballesteros (left) over Tom Watson in 1984 at St Andrews was sensational, the way he punched the air on the 18th green when that putt went in. I must say I didn't think it was going to drop. I thought he'd missed it to the right, and even now if you go out there, that break just doesn't break as much as that. But his did.

1993

I got great pleasure from watching Greg Norman winning at Royal St George's in 1993, when he had that head-to-head with [Nick] Faldo. Norman's final round of 64 was the lowest ever final round by an Open champion and his 267 is the record low score to this day. Not that we are fixated on score at the Open, certainly not relative to par. Around a links course par doesn't mean all that much.

1987

There are several other contenders for one of my five favourites. The 1977 Open, of course, when Tom Watson (right) beat Jack Nicklaus. And it was lovely to see Nick Price, such a nice man, winning the Open. But I thought Faldo's first win at Muirfield in 1987 was particularly wonderful, when he parred the last 18 holes to hold [Paul] Azinger off. Whoever does it this year will earn £720,000, which is £10,000 per hole to the penny, unless there's a play off. That's worth getting out of bed for, don't you think?

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