Tom Watson hit quality shots all day long, said playing partner Sergio Garcia. (Heathcote/Getty Images)
Feeling inspired, Watson conjures up more links magic
Tom Watson drew on his vast knowledge and experience, and his love of links golf, for a vintage performance on Thursday. And even at age 59, he said he thinks he's playing good enough golf to win.
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
TURNBERRY, Scotland -- That Huck Finn grin of his has more laugh lines than it did back in 1977.
But make no mistake. Tom Watson can still make magic at Turnberry, like he did 32 years ago when he beat Jack Nicklaus in the epic “Duel in the Sun” to win the second of his five Open Championships.
He’s 59 now, a time when that same sun is setting on many careers. But Watson drew on his vast knowledge and experience to carve out a 65 that left him one shot off the lead at the 138th Open -- and dreaming of what could be another colossal win.
“I feel inspired playing here,” Watson acknowledged. “A lot of it has to do with just … being in the presence here at Turnberry again, just a culmination of a lot of things that have gone on already. Again, I feel that I'm playing well enough to win the golf tournament.
“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 (then). But, again, a few of them might go in.”
The putts cooperated on Thursday as Watson -- who famously had called his hands “hammer mitts” when he couldn’t make the putts and mount a charge at Turnberry in 1994 -- made five birdies and several clutch par savers to preserve a bogey-free round.
His playing partners Sergio Garcia and Italian amateur Matteo Manassero, neither of whom was even born in 1977, were suitably impressed.
“I think if Watson plays the way he did today, he can beat Tiger Woods and everyone else,” Garcia said. “He flushed it today. The only thing he could have asked from Tiger today was length, but he hit some quality shots, as well as anyone.”
Stewart Cink, who was briefly tied for the lead before making bogey at the 18th hole, played a practice round with Watson at the Masters. The wind was blowing about 30 mph and the temperatures were unseasonably cold. Still, the 59-year-old was unfazed.
“I didn't even want to be out there, and I don't think he missed a shot,” Cink recalled. “He hit every shot down the fairway and every iron shot at the flag. … So it just made me think that he must have his ball striking still in the same place it was then.”
Actually, Watson was channeling the gap-toothed 27-year-old who took down Nicklaus rather than Cink’s more recent playing partner. He says there’s something “slightly spiritual” about the week, which began with a text from Barbara Nicklaus.
“She saw my caddie's picture and said he looked very good,’ Watson said, referring to Neil Oxman, a businessman who was also a friend of the golfer’s former bagman, the late Bruce Edwards.
“And she also wished me good luck. I texted her back and said, ‘You know, we really miss you over here.’ And I really meant it. It's not the same without Jack playing in the tournament.”
Watson got in some practice rounds and dinner with last year’s unlikely 50-something hero at Royal Birkdale, Greg Norman, earlier this week. He knew he was hitting the ball well, so he was not surprised to find himself in red numbers early Thursday after making birdie on Nos. 1 and 3.
“But if you look at the rest of the field, everyone else is under par,” Watson said. “… Turnberry is pretty defenseless right now.”
If there’s anyone the Scots would like to see picking one of their famed links apart, though, it’s Watson. He has grown to love the game played on those craggy coastal courses with the pesky pot bunkers, sand dunes and thigh-high rough.
“Earlier on, I did not like links golf,” Watson acknowledged. “… I didn't like the way you had to play it along the ground, the luck of the bounces or the bad luck of the bounces, but I took it in stride finally and made a pretty good success of it.”
He has, indeed. In addition to those five Open Championships, Watson has also won three Senior British Opens -- including in 2003 at Turnberry when he shot 66, 67, 66, 64 and won in a playoff. He understands the nuances and the kind of shots to hit, and that experience paid dividends on Thursday.
“The older guys have an advantage,” Watson said. “We've played under these conditions and we kind of get a feel for it. And that feel is worth its weight in gold.”
Watson doesn’t know what to think about the rest of the week. He doesn’t know how he’ll handle the pressure if he stays in the hunt. Some days that comes easier than others -- “it’s just the way it’s always been with me,” he said.
Watson does know, though, that he’s having fun hitting quality golf shots and competing on a course he loves. He has a “zip” to his step and a 65 under his belt. He has bigger aspirations, too.
“How amazing would it be? It would be amazing,” Watson said. “You can put all kinds of superlative adjectives and all sorts of things to it. … I don't think about it. It's one of those things that it will happen if it happens.
“And then you ask me the question and I'll tell you what it would be, what I'm feeling at the moment. I can't tell you. I can't speculate what it's going to feel like because I haven't done it yet.”