Questions For Peter Dawson

The R&A's resident spinner will sit down before the scribes Wednesday to talk about the Open Championship, the weather and if we're lucky, his budding design business.

I'd love to hear what you'd ask the Executive Secretary, because I think you'll find that my questions pretty much all come back to the same one ever said I was original.

  • When justifying the R&A-driven changes to Birkdale since the last time it hosted the Open, you said that "the game has moved on somewhat since then." Does this mean that the R&A feels it is more convenient to change courses instead of issuing decisions that regulate equipment?

  • There is a perception that the R&A's refusal to act is the reason that the planned-for 2009 U-groove-rule change did not happen. Why did the R&A decide that the golf world was not ready for this rule change and can you give us some idea when and if the R&A will be jumping on board with the USGA?

  • You mentioned in April that pace of play was getting to be abysmal. Do you see this as the result of players getting slower, or is there some connection between the increased length, thicker rough, narrower fairways, increased bunker and other post "game-has-moved-on-since-then" difficulties similar to those we are seeing at Birkdale this week?

  • After the 2005 Open Championship, you said "Hitting distances have reached a plateau. This is definitely happening; all this discussion that players are hitting the ball further is not true." If that is the case, then why are changes driven by distance gains continuing to be made at rota venues, and do you think these course renovations have a positive influence on the game?

“It's a lot greener than I expected and there is a lot of long, juicy and tough rough. It is not wispy."

John Hopkins issues this disappointing (for fans of links golf) course conditions report:

Birkdale looked impeccable in the strong sunshine, though there was perhaps a little too much green on the fairways and the rough was too lush. “It's very difficult,” Trevor Immelman, the Masters champion, said at the end of his first round over the Merseyside course.

“It's a lot greener than I expected and there is a lot of long, juicy and tough rough. It is not wispy. You had better drive the ball straight here because if you don't, there is no way you can contend.”
And regarding the 17th green...
Much has been made of the redesign of the 17th green by Martin Hawtree, and R&A officials have been defensive about it for months. Yesterday was too soon in Open week to expect definitive comments to emerge about it, though Nick Dougherty admitted that it is out of character with the other 17 greens on the course.

“But it is also a par-five and if you get on the green in two you should be tested,” the Englishman said. “They could be silly about where they put the flag but they won't be. It's great as long as you keep your ball away from the bits that are frightfully over the top.”


"And we would expect to be about 30 million this time," he said.

Chuck Culpepper previews the Open Championship for the L.A. Times and offers this surprising revelation about this year's betting.

And speaking of disposable income in a country where recreational wagering long since has shed its last societal stigmas, last year the bookmakers that adorn every main drag made just under 24 million pounds (about $48 million) on the British Open industry-wide, said Rupert Adams of the William Hill agency.

"And we would expect to be about 30 million this time," he said.

That's in pounds, which outdrive dollars roughly twofold.

To some degree, Woods' absence has unshackled bookmakers and enhanced betting value. It has awakened the "middle level of punter," Adams said, meaning the bettor who spends the equivalent of between $10 and $60 on the Open. He counted himself among those punters and said he'd often seen no value in tournaments involving Woods.

Birkdale Clubhouse Description Watch, Vol. 1

venue-royal-birkdale-facilities.jpgMy money is on Martin Johnson making a strong push for inclusion in this contest to best describe Royal Birkdale's clubhouse, but we already have two fine entries:

Brett Avery in Golf World: "its exterior is at once painfully modern and hulkingly out of date, akin to a south Florida condo development, circa 1970."

And Bradley Klein in Golfweek, who calls it both "slightly absurd" and a "compelling anomaly": "...designed in 1935 by George Tonge to look from afar like a massive cruise ship wending its way through the dunes. Think of it as an English version of a prairie schooner."

“I hear the rain may be done, but you canna believe any forecast past one day.”

13golf.1.600.jpgLarry Dorman is at Birkdale and offers this scouting report:

The case can be made that Royal Birkdale is in the same league, strategically if not aesthetically, with the other regular courses in the rotation. It can play hard and fast or it can play slightly moist and thick with heavy gorse and bracken that will gobble golf balls the way a Venus fly trap eats flies. This weekend, with the northwest wind whistling off the Irish Sea and the dull gray clouds sticking to the sky like a thick layer of lead tape, Birkdale rolled its shoulders and stirred awake.

Near the grandstand by the second tee, Willie Dunbar, a course worker, was busily checking the footing. In a thick Scottish burr, Dunbar explained he was checking the course for “trip hazards,” trying to ensure that spectators would not kick exposed TV cables or any other protrusions and take a fall. He seemed more concerned that a soft, green golf course would not have enough trip wire to keep the pros honest.

“I hear the rain may be done,” he said, quickly adding in a dour Scots manner, “but you canna believe any forecast past one day.”

Recent rains have made the fairways green and the rough lush and thick, while chilly winds have dried greens and fairways enough to keep it from becoming too soft, the way it was back in ’61. That year some course signage was blown down by howling north winds and rain that delayed the start of the third round.

Meanwhile John Huggan shares this from Phil Mickelson:

"I'm really looking forward to this Open," he declares. "Birkdale is one of my fondest courses. It was there I played in my first Open back in 1991. It is in incredible shape, just immaculate. The greens were still pretty firm despite the rain. If it dries out and firms up over the next few days, as it is supposed to, it will be running hard and fast by next Thursday.

"I like those conditions; they will produce the right winner. The players today are so good and the equipment is so good that the temptation is always there to do something funky to the golf course to make par a legitimate score. I think winning scores should be between five and 12 under par. That is a hard test, a playable fair test. The best golfers in the world should be able to shoot that. That is what I would prefer. It would give the top players the chance to separate themselves." 

"If I had won, I would have a real cool trophy sitting in my office right now. And a couple more dollars in my bank account. And I'd be a part of history. That's what would have been different.''

gwar01_080711watts.jpgI don't know about you, but I'm really struggling to get excited about the Open Championship, what with players dropping like flies, Tiger out, Kenny Perry staying home...well that's not the worst thing...and Birkdale's only real interest relying on a goofy green going bad (or not), but I did thoroughly enjoy two preview stories looking at Brian Watts.

You may remember he was the fellow that nearly won last time at Birkdale, which's Bob Harig reminds us in catching up with Watts, now on the comeback trail. And in Golf World, Lorne Rubenstein takes us through Watts' odd series of misdiagnosis' and those unforgettable 18th hole bunker shots.

"I feel it is not out of character. It's simply an extension of the bolder featuring I had attempted at 11 and 15"

maar01_britishopen_birkdale.jpgI'm trying to get in the mood for the Open and know I will when I get that first whiff of links in HD next Thursday (and no Bobby Clampett!). Perhaps the most interesting pre-tournament item will be the new 17th green and the R&A's ability to manage it.

I was skeptical when they first announced in 2005 that they were redoing the green (a redo of a new green for the last Open at Birkdale) and even Peter Dawson, in his now infamous "the game has moved on since then" press conference understands they have to be careful with the speeds.

ran a cartoon lampooning the new No. 17 this week, but Golf Digest's Ron Whitten likes it.

Prior to the 1998 Open, the club also cut down some 6,000 trees that had cluttered the dunes and buffered the mighty winds. Even with a new two-level green, the par-5 17th was the easiest hole in the 1998 Open, so Martin Hawtree rebuilt it a second time, using the back half of the old green as the front half of a new one, and running the remainder up into hand-carved dunes. The contours give the green real character, in contrast to Birkdale's other, more docile greens. He admits some club members don't like it, finding it freakish and out of character. "I feel it is not out of character," he says. "It's simply an extension of the bolder featuring I had attempted at 11 and 15, which were also somewhat controversial after the rebuild."

Ahhhh...the green is not out of character because it matches the other two Hawtree redid.

Now that's an architect who has been spending way too much time around The Donald!

"Both Opens need to introduce a multi-tiered entry-fee system whereby tour players are charged a sum they may think twice about relinquishing so easily."

John Huggan talks to agent Brian Marchbank, who helps explain the WD disease that keeps hitting the U.S. Open and Open Championship international qualifiers.

I'm not quite buying this from David Fay in year three of the WD shenanigans.

"I want to know what the players are thinking," said Fay. "Why are they entering in the first place? Has something happened? Or are we doing something wrong?"

"That's a pretty good record of identification."

John Huggan appears to be the only writer who saw through R&A secretary/in-house architect Peter Dawson's presentation earlier this week. You know, the one where he explained how he was renovating 16 of 18 holes at Birkdale to fit the game that has move on somewhat.
As Dawson trawled through the various changes made to 16 of Birkdale's 18 holes (16!) in the decade since the game's most important championship last made the trip to Southport, it was hard to suppress an ever-increasing level of incredulity. Justifying those alterations with the kiss-off line that "golf has moved on somewhat since then", Dawson was careful not to mention the real reason why Birkdale has joined an ever-lengthening list of classic courses that have been stretched to within an inch of their boundary fences.

Using carefully chosen phrases like "challenge to the modern-day player" and "increased player capability," Dawson, not for the first time, disguised the fact that the current "programme of significant change" that is well under way at every Open venue has virtually nothing whatsoever to do with the players themselves and virtually everything to do with the collective and joint abrogation of responsibility by the R&A and the United States Golf Association when it comes to their (lack of) legislation on the modern golf ball. Had today's equipment been properly regulated over the last decade and a half, it is a safe bet that the likes of Augusta National and the Old Course at St Andrews, to name but two classic courses that have been forced to endure unnecessary change, would not have had to be screwed up to the extent they have been.

This is juicy about 2009 host Turnberry:
It was reported last week that the Ailsa course that will host next year's Open Championship will be "narrower, longer and tougher." To which the obvious response is: "why?"

Correct me if I'm wrong, but on the three previous occasions in which the Ayrshire links has hosted the world's best golfers, the winner of the championship has been the world's best golfer at the time: Tom Watson in 1977, Greg Norman in 1986 and Nick Price in 1994. That's a pretty good record of identification.

Not only that, but every one of those Opens – in three very different weeks weather-wise – were events that have already lived long in the memories of those lucky enough to witness them. The first one, in fact, the so-called "Duel in the Sun" between Watson and Jack Nicklaus, was so good it transcended golf and became one of the great sporting occasions of the last 50 years.

So, tell me again, why is it that the course on which those great events were played is suddenly deemed inadequate, especially when the R&A, unlike their counterparts at the USGA, are forever claiming that the winning score is, to them, irrelevant?

"The last time the Open Championship was here at Birkdale was ten years ago in 1998, and as we know, the game has moved on somewhat since then"

Yesterday we learned that R&A chief spinster Peter Dawson was proud of the organization's revamping of 2009 Open host Turnberry. Tuesday the governing body of golf outside North American proudly announced  changes to 16 out of 18 holes at 2008 Open host Royal Birkdale, including a narrowing of many landing areas.

Hey, it never gets windy over there, you can tighten those babies all day long and no one will notice!

Tuesday Dawson sat down for two press conferences to further discuss the changes and other issues in the game. The only thing more astonishing than his answers was the lack of one decent follow up question asking why the R&A is going around to nearly all of its rota courses and making changes! So much for the demanding British press.

Here's Dawson's joint press conference with Michael Brown and David Hill, where you better get a cart because he's going through all 18 changes. Who knew the R&A was in the architecture business?

None of the alterations is apparently more offensive than Birkdale's new 17th green, which sounds like a disaster if even the lowly scribblers in attendance were astounded by its hideous nature.

Now, this green I quite understand has caused a little bit of controversy. Many of you made comments on it yesterday, and we do fully understand those comments. Let me say a few things about it. It is a par-5, so it's not as if we're expecting the green to be hit at with long irons. The type of green it is is a green that the pros are accustomed to on many golf courses they play at. If you look at Augusta a couple weeks ago, there's probably 18 more sporty greens there than this one. But we are aware that it's a green that could get away from us if we're not careful, and we will be using conservative pin positions and taking great care with the green speed. If we weren't aware of that, we could get into trouble, but we are and we won't. We will be monitoring how this green performs during the Championship to see if anything needs to be done to it in the future. So we're aware it's controversial. We'll have to see how it goes.

And we know how well that attitude worked for the USGA.

Clearly Dawson came prepared for the writers to ask how they can justify emasculating courses instead of doing something about equipment advances. And since questioning the disturbing nature of narrowing courses might require thought, Dawson was able to slip this in.

Overall we've increased the length of the golf course by only 155 yards, which is 2 per cent. Instead of hitting it 100 yards you've got to hit it 102, so the length addition is not that significant.

Now, you'd think that just maybe someone would say, hey, isn't narrowing, lengthening and tricking up courses going to make rounds take longer? Some questions almost got there:

Q. We had a situation at The Masters this year where Trevor Immelman and Brandt Snedeker took five hours to play in a two-ball in the final round. I believe that Adam Scott's group on Sunday was three hours for nine holes. Obviously slow play is the cancer on the game. How do we get players to move quicker around the golf course?

PETER DAWSON: I think we will certainly be aiming to do better than five hours and ten minutes. I think in recent times, particularly on the weekend, we've actually done quite well at the Open. Basic play has not really been an issue, and I'm quite confident that we can do an awful lot better than that.

Q. It's not an issue at the Open perhaps but it is an issue generally. It is getting abysmal. I'm wondering with the R & A as a governing body, how do we get them to get a move-on?

PETER DAWSON: We are concerned about this. We did see some very slow play at The Masters. That's not a criticism of the Augusta event, it just happened to happen.

 He acts like it's an isolated incident!

I wasn't aware of the Adam Scott group statistic. But we do have a meeting coming up in two or three weeks of the World Golf Foundation, where everyone around the table who runs professional golf will be there, and we have put the subject on the agenda, and we hope we will be able to get some meeting of the minds that it is a problem and start to work towards some improvement.

But as you say, it certainly needs something doing about it, not just for the running of these events but for the effect it has on grass-roots play. We do see people not unnaturally copying the stars, and I think it has had an effect on pace of play generally. We all know, don't we, that pace of play is one of the issues cited for participation, and the time that golf takes is an issue that's been cited for keeping participation levels down. It's clearly an issue right across the game, top to bottom, up and down the game, and I think it behooves all the governing bodies in golf to address it.

Yes, let's narrow, lengthen and toughen courses. That sets a wonderful example and really helps speed things up!

And after a few dull questions...

Q. When you say you're looking for a meeting of minds, what is the R & A's view on what can be done?

PETER DAWSON: I think at a professional level it's like drugs. It's a 52-week-a-year occupation, and I do think that ways need to be found to, one, educate players to encourage them, and as a last resort penalise them if they don't respond. We're not seeing any slow play penalties in the game, and that's the last thing we want to see is players being penalised, but unless there's a realistic threat of it, it's hard to see that this would improve.

Well he's right about that.

Here's the one question related to the remarkable number of changes to a course that most thought was already pretty darn good.

Q. The question I was going to ask, which I am going to ask, have you made as many changes to Open courses, to other Open courses, as you have to this one? You described 16 of the 18, which seems to me to be quite a lot.

PETER DAWSON: Well, it is, of course. Many of the changes, if you do it as a whole count, are quite minor. A number are more significant.

We've been going through a programme at all our Open venues by agreement with the clubs and the hosts of some quite significant changes. You're going to see a good deal at Turnberry next year, and you'll probably see quite a few at Livermore in 2012. Royal St. Georges we have, as well, but this is among the more significant in terms of quantum.

And why are these time test venues in need of so many "significant" changes?

I think I know why I don't get invited to their conference calls anymore.

Speaking of that, the conference call produced the killer quote of the day...

Q. My question has to deal with the course setup for the Open. As you know, there was a bit of consternation at The Masters as to how things played out the last couple years, and these questions always come up at the U.S. Open. I'm just curious your philosophy on how you like the course to play when the tournament begins in July.

PETER DAWSON: Well, the last time the Open Championship was here at Birkdale was ten years ago in 1998, and as we know, the game has moved on somewhat since then, and we have made a considerable number of course alterations here at Birkdale. Only two holes have had nothing done to them. The majority of holes, the alterations have been all about repositioning bunkers and run-off areas around the greens, but five holes have been significantly altered. And overall, the length of the golf course has gone up by 155 yards, which is only 2 percent of an increase. So the player length for this year's Championship will be 7,173 yards, but most of the changes have been designed to be strategic or requiring more accuracy from the players.

The game has moved on somewhat since then. Somewhat.