From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Every father hopes that his daughter will marry well—but this? Few have had their dream come true as royally as Major Ronald Ferguson. "Dads," as daughter Sarah calls him, is no newcomer to regal circles; following his 20-year army career, he became Prince Charles's polo manager, a job he has held for 16 years. Yet Ferguson, 55, and his family are still a bit awestruck that one of their own has become part of the celebrated Windsor clan, "We get quite emotional about it," admits the major's vivacious second wife, Susan, 41, a well-to-do farmer's daughter.

Sarah, 27, still visits the Fergusons regularly at Dummer Down Farm, the family's 871-acre estate some 60 miles southwest of London, which was handed down to the major by his father. The Fergusons keep these homecomings low-key, but there are bodyguards to be housed and fed and the awkward formalities demanded by protocol. The Prince, for example, must be addressed by everyone in the family but Sarah as "Sir," although she may be called by her first name. And, odd as it may seem, the major must bow and his wife curtsy to the royal couple in public. "We never thought in a million years that we'd be bowing to Sarah," admits Sue with a laugh.

Sarah's bond with her father was strengthened in 1974, when her mother, Susan, left home and moved to Argentina with Hector Barrantes, a professional polo player whom she eventually wed; the major raised Sarah and her older sister, Jane, on his own. Since Sarah's marriage to Andrew 14 months ago, Ferguson, stung by the periodic lashings she receives by Britain's fickle tabloids, has become fiercely protective of her. Three weeks ago, in an attempt to set the record straight on the eve of her U.S. debut as Duchess of York, he agreed to an interview with London bureau chief Fred Hauptfuhrer. In his office at the Guards Polo Club in Windsor, where an old pinup calendar shares a wall with a poster from his daughter's wedding, the major spoke candidly of Sarah's public and private triumphs and frustrations.

Are you inhibited around Sarah now that she's part of the royal family?

[Laughter.] She's my daughter!

Has your relationship with Sarah changed since her marriage?

We continue to be very close. Sarah is a very caring person, even about her geriatric old father! There can't be many daughters who ring up by radiophone on the night of their wedding, which she did. Funnily enough, I probably speak to her more now than before—about four or five times a week when she's not traveling.

What do you talk about?

Obviously one doesn't disclose private conversations. But she is anxious to pass on what happened on a particular trip or engagement and, being new in that world, she needs some encouragement. I comment on the substance of speeches she might have made, or her hair. I make no bones about it. I don't like it when it's in those ringlet things. I like neat hair. But then she doesn't pay any attention to me about things like that.

Have you given her any advice?

People asked me what I said to her before the wedding. I only made one comment. It was, "Be yourself," and she has continued to be.

Has Sarah found it difficult adjusting to her new life?

Anybody would find it daunting. Sarah has a great deal of courage and determination. Everything she does she wants to do to perfection, not only for herself but also because she is married to Prince Andrew. She doesn't want to let him down. There is nothing peculiar in that.

What frustrates her?

I think she would like to be even more natural than she is. She knows that she has to conform slightly to rules and regulations. I think that there are times that she would perhaps like to break quietly away from the shackles but knows she can't. One difficulty is that she doesn't have the same freedom now as she did in the past. Everywhere she goes, whether it's out shopping or to restaurants with friends, she is accompanied by a bodyguard. One was assigned the moment the engagement was announced. In the past she could dress whatever way she liked. Now, whenever she steps outside, the eyes of the media are upon her.

What delights her about being the Duchess of York?

Seeing the results of her work from a visit, when she can see that people are genuinely happy with what she has done. Also, the encouragement from her husband is fantastic. Not from Prince Andrew, but from her husband.

Are there pros and cons to being a member of the royal family?

Not as I see it. It was a life she married into, and it was very much a love match. Therefore she had to take the rough with the smooth. Don't forget she was 26 when she got married, whereas the Princess of Wales was just 20. Sarah was much more streetwise. She went into this with her eyes open.

How has the family treated her?

Sarah is a very natural person and has been accepted into the royal family for what she is. She does get on very well with all of them. There is no reason she shouldn't. She is very upfront. She is a good listener and is the sort of person who, if she wants advice, will ask for it. Whether she will accept everyone's views is a different matter.

Who in the family has advised her the most on protocol?

Naturally, there are a lot of advisers. But she's obviously had enormous help from the Princess of Wales and great help and advice from the Queen.

Sarah has certainly endured her share of press criticism, especially comments about her weight.

Sarah is what she is. She enjoys her food and she goes up and down. A lot of people have tried to compare her to the Princess of Wales, which is grossly unfair. They are different shapes. Sarah probably thought she was overweight at one point and took steps to remedy that. She looks nice and neat and trim as far as I'm concerned.

Are Sarah and the Princess of Wales best friends?

I think "best friends" is corny. They are great friends. Incredibly close.

Are they in any sense rivals?

No, of course they are not. They have completely different roles. One is married to the future king, the other to Prince Andrew. They have their own lives to deal with. They are not trying to compete as to who wears the smartest dress, or who attends the most functions. At the same time, they have a great deal of fun together and carry on accordingly. Take that Ascot situation, where they poked someone with their umbrellas. It so happened that the person they jabbed was a very great friend of theirs. He was just in front of them and a very natural reaction from them was to have a bit of fun. The press says you can't behave like that, which is ludicrous.

Some reports blame Sarah for leading Diana astray by introducing her to people of dubious reputation.

I am not aware that Sarah has encouraged her to meet anybody who is dubious. Why should she? There is also the story that Sarah and the Princess of Wales drink too much. Again, absolute rubbish. They both might have a glass of wine, but they have never drunk to excess.

Sarah was soundly chastised by some for her behavior at the medieval charity event, The Grand Knockout Tournament, last June, when she threw plastic fruit at Andrew and cavorted like a cheerleader. Did she go overboard?

No, she just entered into the spirit of the thing. She was part of a team and she was encouraging them. Personally, I don't think that any of [the royals] should have participated. I don't think that kind of thing is terribly funny. But I don't want to get too critical of it, because it is something that Prince Edward organized. It raised a great deal of money for charity, and we all do things for charity that perhaps we shouldn't do.

How do Sarah and Diana react to the criticism?

There is no defense mechanism. They cannot ring up the newspapers. They just laugh and carry on as normal. Sarah has given up reading all the rubbish they write, which is a good thing.

Have you?

No, I read everything that is written about my daughter. I would be a very peculiar father if I didn't. I got extremely angry, for example, about the nonsense that Sarah supposedly was taking fertility drugs to become pregnant, which is untrue. I've no idea what their plans are. That is between her and Andrew.

On official visits, Sarah often draws more attention than Andrew. Has that strained their relationship?

It's the public with their new toy. Just like children, they play with it and then, after a fortnight, go on to the next toy. In this case, it will last rather longer than that, hopefully, but it's a reflection of being the new member of the royal family. I don't think it creates any problems at all. I think Prince Andrew is very proud of her, and that it must be wonderful for him to see the reaction of the crowd. If I were him, I would be thrilled.

Andrew spends most of the week fulfilling his naval duties. Do the frequent separations bother them?

Naturally, when two people are in love they want to be together the whole time. But Sarah knew what was going to happen. She is the daughter of a soldier. She knew that I had to be away from home and family for quite a lot of the time.

How does she spend the time alone?

I don't know exactly how she fills her evenings, but I know perfectly well that she has continued to see her old friends, which is only right and proper. She may have a friend to dinner or go somewhere else. Sarah will never be lost for things to do. Like anybody else, though, she does want time on her own to sit down, watch television, read a book, write a letter and unwind.

How did she enjoy her recent canoe trip through Canada?

It was frightening because she didn't know how it was going to turn out, especially the trip up the river. Paddling a canoe, living in tents, cooking on stoves, with all the insects and bugs. It was quite a challenge. The flies attacked her; she got bitten all the time. One has to wear a mask constantly to keep the bugs out, but as she was inexperienced the flies got in. There were no wild animals or that kind of thing, but she didn't know how much she could tolerate until she actually did it. I think she came back with a feeling of tremendous satisfaction at having survived it.

Is Prince Andrew like a son to you?

Not like a son. I have a son. But I am delighted to have him as a son-in-law—as a person.

What is his mood when he visits Dummer Down Farm?

Damned relaxed! We have dinner around the kitchen table. We carry on normally. He is a hell of a good chap and he is fantastic for one's daughter.

What effect have the past 14 months had on your life?

It's been unbelievable. I like to think that it hasn't in any way changed my life. That's not true. It has, of course. It's easier to get good tables at restaurants, or to get upgraded at the airport. My younger children [Andrew, 9, Alice, 6, and Eliza, 2] get rather upset when they go flying off now. They say, 'Daddy, where are the photographers?' They got used to being surrounded by them at the time of the wedding. But basically, I like to think that it hasn't changed me as a person at all, that I haven't given myself any airs or graces. Why should I? It's not me. It's my daughter. I must sound like a biased father talking. I am naturally biased, but on the other hand, everything that Sarah has done so far would make any parent proud.