By John Steinbreder
St. Andrews, Scotland
The view from the secretary’s office at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club is unrivaled in sports. French doors open to a second-floor balcony that overlooks the first tee and 18th green of the Old Course, with the hallowed ground’s humps, bumps, heather and bunkers stretching beyond.
Peter Dawson, who has occupied this enviable work space since 1999, typically leads first-time visitors directly to the balcony before getting down to the business at hand.
“Not too bad,” he says this day of his elegant, walnut-paneled surroundings, “but the view sucks.”
Dawson is joking, of course. But his use of what many R&A members surely would regard as a vulgarity is disarming to the two journalists who are there to interview him. No question, this is a new breed of secretary at the helm of the 250-year-old R&A.
“Peter is a very affable, competent fellow who is probably the best businessman we’ve ever had as secretary,” says long-time R&A member Colin Maclaine, who has served the club in a number of capacities, including captain. “He is thoughtful, lucid, sensible and very much a man of his time.”
Dawson, 56, was unknown to golf administrators outside the inner circle of the R&A when he took over as secretary, a title similar to that of executive director of an association in the United States. He had been an R&A member for five years, and was active as a rules official, but was hired as secretary only after answering a classified ad in The Times of London, seeking a replacement for Sir Michael Bonallack, who was stepping down after 16 years at the helm.
Bonallack is a soft-spoken, courtly man, revered as one of the greatest champions in English golf history, counting five British Amateur victories and five English Amateur titles among his dozens of conquests. Dawson was a scratch golfer when he competed for Cambridge University, but it was his business acumen that won him the job as R&A secretary.
Dawson has held managerial positions for almost all of his adult life. “I have always been in management, and from a ridiculously young age,” he says.
At 24, only two years removed from earning his engineering degree at Cambridge, Dawson was placed in charge of a small, Birmingham-based subsidiary of McKechnie Metals Ltd., overseeing 130 employees who manufactured door hinges.
“It was tough,” Dawson says. “I don’t think they were expecting such a wet-behind-the-ears boss.”
Much of his career was spent with Grove Worldwide, the Pennsylvania-based maker of cranes and other construction equipment. He began as Grove’s managing director of its manufacturing facility in England, and rose to direct the company’s operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Dawson, a native Scot, has never lived abroad, but he has traveled the world extensively.
“Peter has been very adept at representing the R&A as an institution and moving it forward at the same time,” says Alan McGregor, head of the St. Andrews Links Trust, which operates the six golf courses in that town. “The time was right for someone like him, a businessperson who also happens to be a golfer, and he was an inspired choice.”
Alastair Johnston, co-CEO of IMG, works closely with Dawson on matters ranging from TV broadcast rights for the British Open to management of the Open Championship’s “tented village” hospitality and retail area.
“Peter is a very bright man who understands business very well and has just the right personal qualifications for the job,” Johnston says.
“He uses humor very well in business situations and always makes sure
people have a fair deal, and a fair relationship, with the R&A. He is not someone who, as a matter of principle, feels he ever has to get a leg up.”
Not everyone, however, is so quick to praise Dawson. He has been criticized in some circles for being “rigid” and “unyielding” on certain matters. Some golf insiders across the pond believe he treats his American counterparts with more than a touch of condescension.
“You just get the sense he feels above it all at times,” says one American who has long been assoc-iated with the game’s administration. “There is a troubling arrogance, like ‘I am secretary of the R&A, and I’ll do what I want.’ ”
Adds another American with close ties to the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A: “I believe Peter can be very graceful and articulate in disputes, but he can be very stubborn when he stakes out a position, and almost impossible to move as a result. And at times, that almost leads me to believe he has an anti-U.S., or at least anti-USGA, position.”
As an example, officials at the USGA are said to be considering loosening rules against the use of global positioning systems and other devices used to determine yardage during play. A staunch traditionalist, Dawson adamantly opposes the use of such aids.
There is no doubt Dawson can be smugly disdainful of the American approach in the world of golf governance. More than once he has said that the R&A is less “personality-driven” than the USGA, alluding to strident agendas put forward by some USGA presidents.
“We are sometimes accused of being glacial, but we have seen rushes to judgments before and how they soon become unraveled,” Dawson says. “In the U.S., you have the nature of the herd and the sense that things have to change all the time, and very quickly at that.”
As for rigidity – real or perceived – Dawson simply says: “I am probably quite rigid when something involves a point of principle. And I am probably quite pragmatic in other areas of my work as secretary, where there needs to be give and take.”
With thinning hair that’s graying at the temples, Dawson has a wry, almost crooked smile. He favors blue, double-breasted blazers. He is not the type of person who likes to draw attention to himself, or to his job.
Rather, Dawson the father of two grown children, is content to remain in the shadows. He is devoted to his work at the R&A, which is pretty much a seven-days-per-week proposition, and thankful for the rare moments he gets to putter in his St. Andrews garden. Or to join his wife Juliet on a walk with their two flat-coated retrievers, preferably on The Strand, the beach – also on view from his office balcony – that separates the linksland from St. Andrews Bay.
Dawson was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, but spent his school years in Edinburgh, where his father worked a civil service job with the national phone company. (His dad had been a champion swimmer for Britain in the late 1930s, but his Olympic hopes were dashed by World War II.) Dawson’s mother died when he was young, although his father remarried.
He first picked up a golf club when he was 11, even though neither his father nor his stepmother played the game. Dawson honed his skills at public golf courses around Edinburgh, although he later joined one of the English clubs to which Bonallack belonged, and frequently played team matches with him “when he was at the height of his powers.”
In 1997, three years after joining the R&A, Dawson became a member of its rules committee, immersing himself in that facet of the game and officiating with regularity at professional and amateur events.
“I enjoyed being inside the ropes and watching the best players in the world,” he says. “And as someone with a engineering background, I also fancied the technicality of the rules and the details involved in writing and interpreting them.”
Dawson still relishes the opportunities he gets to officiate at the Masters, the U.S. Open or the World Amateur Team Championships.
“Actually, I quite enjoy what I am doing,” he says. “And I like the variety that comes with it, whether it is working on broadcast rights for the Open Championship or discussing the state of the club’s snooker room.
“Obviously, it’s the best job I’ve ever had. And I have enjoyed them all.”
In return, those jobs helped Dawson build a resume that the R&A – which was beginning to rethink its business practices for the new millennium – couldn’t resist.
“I think the club wanted someone who knew a bit about golf and a bit about running a business,” Dawson says. “I was given a company to run when I was 24 years old, and had been in corporate management ever since. I also had a pretty good background in the game, so it made a bit of sense.
“I think the club received something like 200 applications, and I faxed mine in the day of the deadline. I was on the first short list, and then the second short list, and here I am.”
Here, in that sumptuous office, where he can gaze across the grounds where golf was spawned, even as he helps shape the game’s future.