As Royal Liverpool prepares to host its 12th Open Championship, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson tells Golf Monthly how the course is shaping up…
Peter Dawson Q&A
How is the course at Royal Liverpool looking? We’re very pleased with the condition, given the winter they’ve had. It’s good and firm, and much less mossy than it was at this stage last time [in 2006]. Some of the back tees had quite a bit of moss on them then, but that’s not the case now. [Links manager] Craig Gilholm and his team have done a great job, and it’s absolutely fine. But it could still get just as firm as it did eight years ago if we had a long dry spell between now and July.
Was there any player feedback after 2006’s very dry conditions? I didn’t get too much. There was some concern in practice about the sand being too soft in the bunkers, with balls plugging. But most players felt they were normal links conditions for when it’s very dry. They were exceptional conditions, though, and I remember on one of the practice days the temperature hit 100˚. The green speed rose alarmingly that day, and it was slightly windy, too, so we had to get some watering done. In those days, the watering system at Hoylake wasn’t particularly good, but it’s been upgraded since.
Was opinion split among the wider golfing public about the extreme conditions? We did get a few messages, mainly from abroad, from people who thought that green was good, and didn’t really understand why we weren’t looking after the course better.
Spectator figures were good last time, too, weren’t they? Actually, I think you could call them a record, because the only time we’ve had more was at St Andrews in 2000, but we did have a Past Champions event there on the Wednesday, which I think attracted 38,000 – a huge number of people. So like for like, you could call Hoylake a record at 230,000.
Do you think there was a bit of a curiosity factor last time, with Hoylake hosting the championship after a 39-year gap? I think there was, and the excellent weather had an effect, too. While we’re expecting a good crowd again this time, I don’t think we can say there will be as many, but time will tell.
Would you have liked to see players using their drivers more in 2006? Although Tiger didn’t use the driver, a lot of players did. But course management, when a golf course is that fiery, is what it’s all about. If you can hit your driver long and straight then you’ll do well, but, of course, it’s very difficult when the ball is running that fast.
Has much changed on the course since 2006? Starting at the club’s 17th, which will be our 1st, we’ve made that into a very, very tough hole by breaking the ground in the driving zone in the left rough. If you go in there, it’s not a nice place to be. The green has been reconfigured, rebunkered and reswaled, with some of the bunkers short of the green removed. I think that could prove to be the toughest hole in the championship, and may be the toughest opening hole on our rota now.
Tougher than Birkdale? Historically, the 1st at Muirfield is very tough, but last time it was generally downwind and playing quite short. But the 1st at Birkdale is very tough, too, and you can easily leak it out of bounds on the right. Moving on to our 3rd hole, which is the club’s 1st, the dip or swale just short of the green has been extended to the right so that it covers almost half the front of the green, making the second shot more demanding, especially with the out of bounds on the right.
Is that the closest out of bounds to a green on the Open rota? Probably. The old 17th at Hoylake was like that, too – it was right up against the road in the old days, but that was actually changed for safety considerations years ago. I suppose the 18th green at St Andrews is very close to the out of bounds, but that’s probably not in play quite as much, as the ground slopes away from it, and you’re playing a much shorter second shot.
Are there any other significant changes? The par-3 9th hole has been reconfigured. The bunkering and swaling around the green has been adjusted on both the left and right, and we’ve raised the sand level in the bunkers to avoid flooding, because that’s one of the low points of the course. Then, on the 11th, we’ve taken a bunker away on the left and made it into a swale, so you’ll now have to make a decision to either run it up or loft it over. That’s a subtle change, especially for the front left pin. The only major change to length is on the 7th, where the tee has gone back about 30 yards, to make it 483 yards. The rough areas left of 12 and 14 have had some broken ground put into the slopes, but by and large there’s not been that much change from 2006 – the course is only about 50 yards longer.
Why don’t you start on the club’s 1st hole? It’s purely to finish on a hole where we can get the grandstands around the green. You couldn’t do that on their 18th – you just couldn’t get a 72nd hole amphitheatre around there. It’s the only one of our venues to have a full wraparound grandstand on the 18th hole.
What else is new for this year? I’m keen to major on “tradition meets technology”, because we now have a Wi-Fi system in the grandstands, which will allow people to watch not just what’s in front of them, but also, if they have mobile devices with them, what’s going on around the rest of the course. That’s a huge revolution for spectating at golf events. We trialled it at Muirfield, but I really think it’s the big story of this championship.
So you’ve come full circle on mobiles being brought on to the course? We have, but it was really their use as cameras that was the issue. We’ve realised that people are wedded to these things these days, so let’s move on with it and take advantage of that fact. We’re also expanding the number of electronic scoreboards out on the course. There were four at Muirfield, but we’re going to have 17 this year, which is over £1million worth of investment. We’ll have one on every hole except 18, where we’re going to stick with the traditional yellow scoreboard up in the grandstand. Feedback was good last year, and the information they can provide is more and more what people are looking for in the modern age.
Looking to the future, anything to report from Portrush or Porthcawl yet? There’s quite a lot going on, and from a golf course standpoint we’re going to be interested to see how the Senior Open goes at Porthcawl this year. At Portrush, I’m think it’s public knowledge that we’re still talking there, but there’s nothing to announce as yet.
Are you hoping to make an announcement before you stand down next September? That’s quite a long way off, and it would be a pity if we couldn’t get it finalised one way or another before then, that’s for sure.
Was it a difficult decision to retire? No. I will have done 16 years here, and by complete coincidence, each of my three predecessors also did 16 years. I’ll be 67 by then, and it’s that sort of time, isn’t it?
Did the 16-year thing influence your decision? No, not at all. When I took the job, the retirement age in my contract was 60, and I’ve gone on beyond that, but it just feels like the right time now. But I’m going to carry on in my role with the International Golf Federation (IGF) up until the Rio Olympics in 2016. We hope that we’ll be able to get my successor appointed in time for a sensible handover.