By John Huggan
News that the R&A's first-ever chief executive, Peter Dawson, will retire from his post in September 2015 after 16 years on the job comes as no real surprise. With golf in the Olympics and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews finally set to vote on the vexing issue of allowing female members, maybe the 64-year-old Cambridge graduate felt there was nothing much left for him to achieve. Then again, perhaps it is simply time to be at home more with his wife, Juliet -- who has recently not enjoyed the best of health -- and working on the swing that made him a 1-handicapper at his best.
Whatever, what might be called the "Dawson era" is one that brought with it changes and challenges almost unprecedented in the now 260 years of the golf club's existence. Indeed, Dawson's hiring at the back end of the last century surely had much to do with the need for the "R&A GC" to separate itself from the corporate business of being the game's rule maker outside the United States and Mexico.
No one in the famous old clubhouse that sits behind the first tee on the Old Course needs to be reminded of the uncomfortable sight of then R&A secretary, five-time British Amateur champion Michael Bonallack, being served with a writ by the Karsten Manufacturing during the 1989 Walker Cup in Atlanta. That incident alone confirmed how much the R&A and its 2,500 or so members needed insulation for the club from the specter of legal action being brought against the governing body.
So it was that Dawson, with a career that climaxed as head of sales and marketing in Europe, Africa and the Far East for U.S.-based Grove Manufacturing ("the biggest manufacturers of hydraulic cranes in the world"), was the right man with the right experience for such a delicate task.
Dawson's background has surely also been an asset in dealing with on-going club and ball issues, what he has called "the most intellectually demanding aspect of my tenure, both technically and philosophically." But through it all, the impression here is that he has always thought more as a golfer than an engineering graduate. While publicly he has consistently defended the actions of the R&A and USGA when the subject of driving distances is raised, it would be no surprise -- eventually -- to hear Dawson's private feelings on large-headed drivers and the modern golf ball do not exactly mirror the party line.
For all his successes though, the Aberdeen-born Scot's tenure has not been without criticism or controversy. His dealings with the media, an aspect of the job in which he had little or no previous experience, have often been strained. More than once his irritation with awkward questions has been apparent, especially when the subject has been the R&A's lack of women members.
[Related: Royal & Ancient GC to vote on allowing female members
Since 2004, when the R&A and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club went their separate ways, Dawson has more concerned himself with the set-up of British Open venues. All have been lengthened and many have been subjected to what some critics have euphemistically dubbed "the treatment." This year, for example, the first hole at Hoylake will see a new green courtesy of architect Martin Hawtree that bears little or no resemblance to any other on the course. Likewise, the controversial 17th green at Royal Birkdale has seen many informed observers query Dawson's level of involvement in this often-esoteric area of the game.
Looking forward, the R&A has announced that Dawson's successor will be in place before September next year so that an "appropriate handover period" can take place. Exactly who that man will be remains unclear, as do the qualifications he will most require going forward.
Bonallack was a figurehead at a time when that was what the R&A needed. Dawson's lengthy experience in business was the quality missing from the club's hierarchy back in 1999. The next incumbent is likely to be a mixture of both.