21 Sep 2015

While away recently I missed the news that Peter Dawson, Chief Executive of the R&A, had passed away. Catching up over the weekend I noted several, “Golf to Farewell Dawson” type headlines, which gave pause. Now nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, but while Dawson’s family will no doubt grieve, the game of golf will not miss him.
 
Dawson’s devastating reign in golf started back in 1999 when he replaced Sir Michael Bonallack as Secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. The role was expanded with the creation of the R&A a few years later, to oversee the running of the Open Championship and issues of governance within the game. At the risk of being branded a doomsayer, during his time in charge this great game of ours has gone backwards, and quickly.
 
While some might argue that the most important role the Royal & Ancient performs is the organisation of the Open Championship every year, lets not forget the golf club dates back more than a hundred years prior to that championships’ formation. The club’s own charter describes ‘the development of the game in existing and emerging golfing nations’ as one of their three distinct areas of responsibility. Among those existing nations is ours, Australia.
 
During Dawson’s time in charge of our governing body, participation rates have fallen in Australia and golf club memberships are down by 20%. Golf courses and clubs across the country are struggling to stay afloat. Our professional tour is a shadow of its former self, there is little golf on television and we have gone from the mainstream to become very much a niche sport. Clearly Peter Dawson is not responsible for all that ails the local industry, but we point the figure squarely at his organisation for the reckless manner in which the regulations governing our game have been hijacked and exploited.
 
During this coming period of ‘mourning’, the eulogising over Dawson’s demise will likely centre on the growth of the Open Championship itself, held earlier this year in St Andrews. The Open has unquestionably become more commercial since Dawson moved to the Auld Grey Town, with this year’s winner collecting in excess of £1 Million for the first time. That money has come from a range of sources; including a lucrative new television deal with cable network Sky Sports in the United Kingdom. That deal, while netting the organisation more money, ensures that fewer people will be able to watch the Open from 2017 than in previous years. Those who defend the move obviously feel that you can grow the game of golf by removing eyeballs from the event itself, in order to line the pockets of the professionals who play in it. It’s a curious position.
 
Back in 1999 the Open Championship was screened every year here in Australia on free-to-air television, and protected by federal government legislation (anti-siphoning list). The Open is no longer screened on free-to-air television, making it inaccessible for more than 70% of Australians and more than 70% of Australian golfers. The anti-siphoning list no longer protects three of golf’s four majors for the viewing public, thanks to indifference and inaction from our own local administrators.
 
Dawson is obviously not entirely to blame for the loss of golf from Australian screens, but as rights owners of the Open Championship the R&A could make genuine efforts to help the game locally by choosing the best licensing partner, rather than the one prepared to stump up the most cash. Those who under-estimate just how significant the loss of major golf on free-to-air television really is, were either asleep during the Norman years or are completely out of touch with junior sports fans around the country.
 
Unsurprisingly, a press release from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews appears to measure the success of these Dawson years through the financial achievements of the Open Championship. The release reads, in part, “The Open enjoyed continuing commercial success throughout Mr Dawson’s tenure enabling The R&A to invest substantially in supporting the development of golf around the world.”
 
What the Royal & Ancient fails to expand upon, is how much of those monies raised to ‘support the development of golf around the world’ were subsequently spent making Open venues longer and harder. At last count it was over US$16 Million, spent, as Dawson himself put it, to bring the Open rota courses “into the modern era”. The figure spent on ‘modernisation’ by non-Open rota courses worldwide would be truly frightening.
 
From a technological perspective, “the modern era” can be marked by the Dawson reign. Sure the Callaway Big Bertha arrived before him, but the huge explosion in driving distances, and the huge increase in driver head size, were both under his watch. Dawson and counterparts at the USGA liked to tell us that driving distance increases in recent years had been reigned in, but when you consider the totality of his tenure as Secretary of the Royal & Ancient the figures are quite damning.
 
During the year prior to Dawson’s introduction to golf administration (1998), no European Tour member had averaged over 300 yards from the tee. This year there are 24. Angel Cabrera was the 2nd longest driver in 1998, averaging 289 yards, which would have placed him outside the Top 100 this year. On the PGA Tour there are 44 players hitting the ball further today than Tiger Woods did in 1998, when he was 2nd in distance behind John Daly.
 
Perhaps more damning than the raw individual numbers are what increased driving distances have meant collectively for the professional game as a spectacle. It’s clearly become one-dimensional. Back in 1990, for example, the only golfer ranked among both the Top 10 Players in the World and the 10 Longest hitters on the PGA Tour was Greg Norman. Norman also led the money list that year, but only one of the other 10 longest drivers finished among the Top 30 earners, Davis Love III in 20th position. This year 6 of the 10 longest hitters on the PGA Tour rank among the Top 20 on the money list. The 3 longest hitters (Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Jason Day) each finished Top 5 in earnings. Back in 1990 shorter hitters had more of a chance, because being long didn’t always mean being straight.
 
Those who foster the nonsense that modern professionals are superior athletes should consider this, that each of Kenny Perry, Jesper Parnevik, Woody Austin, Mark O’Meara, Jeff Sluman, Tom Lehman, Bernhard Langer and Cory Pavin hits their driver further today on the Champions Tour (over 50’s) than they did on the PGA Tour back in 1998. Fitness has nothing to do with it. Penny, Pavin and Parnevik are all more than 15 yards longer than in their prime. Even Tom Watson averages 266.9 yards off the tee this year, only a couple of yards outside what would have been 100th place in 1998. Watson is 65-years old.
 
Most of these seniors battled against our own Greg Norman during his heady days. Norman’s success was built on what was a rare combination back then of length and accuracy. Bernhard Langer, for example, was the inaugural World 1 number when golf rankings were formalised in 1986, yet he finished outside the Top 100 in driving distance that year on the PGA Tour. Mark O’Meara, Corey Pavin and Calvin Peete also ranked inside the World’s Top 10 during 1986, but outside the Top 90 in driving distances. So too did Curtis Strange and Tom Kite, each ranked in the Top 5 in the World when Norman sat atop the rankings in 1990.
 
Prior to the Dawson Era, Tiger Woods used a driver that was almost half the size of today's maxed-out frying pan heads, and in 1997 had destroyed Augusta National to the point the course was lengthened more than 500 yards, and so called Tiger-proofed. You could say instead that it was Dawson-proofed, owing to his governing body’s refusal to limit the size of the driver head until an arbitrary halt was called at a ridiculous 460 cubic centimetres. We hadn’t seen a 300CC driver head, let alone a 400CC or 460CC head, before Dawson took office. We also had met the Titleist Pro V.
 
The fact that Dawson and his colleagues retrospectively admitted making a gaffe on the long putter by outlawing its anchoring to the body a couple of years back, makes inaction on the driver head and golf ball more incomprehensible, and unforgivable.
 
While the professional and elite level game has never been healthier in this country, the amateur game is bordering on crisis. During Dawson’s tenure the R&A has failed club golf and club golfers by failing to properly regulate the equipment of an ancient game played 500 years before he took office. Advancements have been made throughout our history, but never with such drastic speed or with such dire consequences. Golf courses the world over are now longer and more expensive and the game is less sustainable than ever before.
 
Dawson isn’t the only administrator to have been derelict in his duties, but he did have the highest profile. He was also the only one who thought he could improve the Old Course at St Andrews by adding bunkers, back tees and making it harder for good players. Without wishing to dance upon his grave, the fact is that by any objective measure Dawson’s time in golf has been a disaster.
 
As we lay this man to rest, and prepare to read the inevitable puffy eulogising about his services to golf and contributions made, lets not forget the privileged position he enjoyed for a decade and a half, nor the esteem with which an almighty tournament was already held. The Open Championship may be richer but the game of golf is poorer for his involvement.
 
Rest in peace Mr. Dawson – just away from our links, please.
 
Darius Oliver
 
Note: Peter Dawson retires from his duties at the R&A in Sept, 2015.

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