Anyone who spends 15 years in charge of the Royal & Ancient surely is entitled to at least one mulligan.
Peter Dawson took his long before he started the job.
“I was playing an American one year at Oxford Golf Club, and he introduced me to this traveling mulligan,” Dawson said. “As you know, we don’t have them over here. I was 2 down with four to play and on the par-3 15th, I shanked one. So I said to him, `I’ll have my mulligan now.’ And with my next shot, I had a hole-in-one. I think he was so rattled that he lost the match. I never allowed myself to take another one. I had to keep my record intact.”
Dawson is keeping another record rather tidy, somewhat by coincidence.
He announced last month that he will retire in September 2015 as secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and chief executive of The R&A, a business division he wisely created 10 years ago. He will have served 16 years, the same tenure as the three R&A secretaries before him.
What sets him apart is coping with perhaps the most challenging times in the club’s 260-year history.
He is proud of a central role he played in getting golf back into the Olympics for the first time in more than a century, and Dawson will stay on as head of the International Golf Federation through the Rio Games. One of his favorite moments was gathering British Open champions at St. Andrews in 2000 to celebrate the millennium, an exhibition that brought together the likes of Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros on a glorious late afternoon at the home of golf.
But the Royal & Ancient game has been moving at warp speed over the last two decades, and Dawson has been in the middle of it.
He took over in 1999, about the time Callaway introduced the thin-faced ERC driver with a trampoline effect that was not allowed by USGA, yet approved by the R&A standards. That three-year period of golf’s ruling bodies not being on the same page is the one “working mulligan” Dawson would have wanted.
Three years later, the R&A and USGA published a “Joint Statement of Principles,” and pledged to work more closely together.
The most recent example was the decision to publish a new rule in 2016 that will ban the anchored stroke used for long putters – a putting stroke used to win each of the four majors over the last three years. There remains strife among leading golf organizations over the ban, though Dawson isn’t budging.
He also has heard plenty of criticism about changes to the Old Course at St. Andrews, seen as sacrilege by purists who believe the R&A is changing golf courses instead of reining in technology. And in September, the R&A Golf Club is to vote on a proposal to allow female members for the first time, which Dawson endorses. The vote is two years after Augusta National invited female members to join for the first time.
Was it all enough to make Dawson want to retire?
“That was just normal course of business,” he said dismissively. “Quite often, the media perception of what is weighing heavily on us is not particularly so.”
What weighed heaviest on Dawson, and still does, is striking the balance between technology and skill. There is pressure from one corner to slow the golf ball and reduce the size of drivers, and pressure from another corner to make the sport easier at a time when golf participation is in decline.
“Keeping the balance right has been the biggest intellectual challenge,” Dawson said.
He is comfortable that the R&A and USGA got it about right. That will be debated long after Dawson leaves, and it figures to confront the next R&A chief.
Dawson’s reputation, unlike that of predecessor Sir Michael Bonallack, was built on management more than golf, and it was the right fit for the times. The next R&A chief could be a blend of both. No obvious candidates have emerged in the last month. Asked for the best qualifications, Dawson mentioned someone steeped in the values of golf, with commercial and international experience, and two other attributes – diplomacy and humility.
“One of the things you have to do as a governing body is to treat golf as a sport, as opposed to a business,” Dawson said. “Other bodies might put business first because of priorities. The commercial side of what we do is very important to allow us to fulfill the governance role, and you can’t lose sight of that. But I view golf first. Business is close. If you’re scrambling for finances, it’s difficult to maintain your principles. So the financial success is important to sport.”