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Tom Watson, Matteo Manassero, Sergio Garcia
On Thursday, Tom Watson outshone his playing partners, Matteo Manassero and Sergio Garcia. (How/Getty Images)

On special day, Watson turns it on at Turnberry

By Tim Dahlberg, AP Sports Columnist

TURNBERRY, Scotland (AP) -- These kind of things usually don’t end well, no matter how much we might want them to. Golf is a tough enough game for even the youngsters playing in this Open Championship, and 59-year-olds have no business getting in the way -- no matter what their pedigree might be.

But then Tom Watson starts talking about feeling something spiritual out on the links, and you start wondering. He calls the golf course “she,” like Turnberry is an eccentric old aunt, and says he feels a serenity when he is with her.

On Thursday, he went out underneath a retro argyle sweater with a 16-year-old as one of his playing partners and shot a 5-under 65 that was as remarkable as it was improbable. It matched the score he posted in the final round on the same course in 1977 to beat Jack Nicklaus by a shot and win the claret jug trophy in what would live in golf lore as the “Duel in the Sun.”

The ease with which it came made a lot of his fans -- and there are many in Britain, where his success has been great -- want to believe. But he’s at an age where the supreme confidence of one day can mysteriously disappear by the next.

The day before, he had teased reporters by telling them what a great story it would be if he might somehow win, then laughed at the silliness of it all. He didn’t mention anything about the text messages wishing him good luck from a woman named Barbara, who just happens to be married to the man he beat 32 years ago.

He doesn’t have many other secrets, because Watson has always been an open book, at least when it comes to golf. He’s played on the public stage in four different decades now, and his five Open wins, second only to Harry Vardon, would testify to a brilliant career even if he had never done anything else.

But win a sixth just nine months after undergoing hip surgery? Against a field that includes Tiger Woods and a host of 20-somethings who hit the ball long and far?

Not likely. Not at an age when nerves fray quicker and muscles ache longer.

Golf may be the one sport that can be played competitively at a comparatively old age, but that age comes with a burden. The oldest player to win one of the four major championships was Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at 48, and the oldest to win the Open was Old Tom Morris himself at 46 -- and that was 142 years ago.

So how about it, Old Tom Watson? What if it somehow, some way, it came true?

“It would be amazing,” Watson said. “You can put all kinds of superlative adjectives and all sorts of things to it. It would be amazing.”

Indeed, the whole thing is way too crazy, something Watson seems to know but won’t just come out and say. Not when the competitive juices are flowing and the game that can sometimes be so humiliating is fun again, at least for a day.

He’s been in a similar position before, and it didn’t end well. That was the 2003 U.S. Open outside Chicago where the then-53-year-old opened with a 65 before fading and ending up in a tie for 28th.

On his bag for that tournament was longtime friend and caddie Bruce Edwards, who had been diagnosed earlier that year with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The cheers that day as they walked up the 18th hole were for both men: a golfer who was playing beyond his years and his dying caddie, who was struggling just to walk.

“If I shoot 90 tomorrow, I don’t care,” Watson said after that round.

Thursday’s round at Turnberry didn’t carry that kind of emotion, and Watson isn’t a lot for sentimental reflection. But he can recite every shot he hit in his famous showdown with Nicklaus, and every hole at Turnberry brings back some different memory.

He beat Nicklaus in 1977 and won the 2003 Senior British Open with a final round 64. And there was the near miss in 1994, when he and Nicklaus had some dinner and a few bottles of wine after the final round, then sneaked on to play the adjoining par-3 course in the dark. A security guard came to shoo them away, only to find the greatest player ever and a five-time Open champion engaged in a bit of fun.

Golf hasn’t been as much fun lately, and Watson knows time is running out, so that makes the round that left him just a stroke behind Miguel Angel Jimenez so special. Open champions once had a lifetime pass to the tournament, but the age limit is now 60, meaning next year’s tournament at St. Andrews will be his last.

He seems resigned to that and says he doesn’t want to play when he has no chance to win. But he feels he still has a few rounds left in him, and believes there is something magical here that he can’t quite explain.

“I feel inspired playing here,” Watson said. “It doesn’t feel a whole lot out of the ordinary from 32 years ago except that I don’t have the confidence in my putting as I had 32 years ago. But, again, a few of them might go in.”

They just might, assuming the cosmic gods of golf want it that way.

This is, after all, a love affair between a man and a course.
 

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