Old-timers day, Part II: 59-year-old Tom Watson leads British Open after shooting opening 65

By Paul Newberry, AP
Thursday, July 16, 2009

Turn back the clock: Watson leading Open with 65

TURNBERRY, Scotland — On the eve of the British Open, Tom Watson got a modern-day text message from Jack Nicklaus’ wife.

Then it was time to turn back the clock at Turnberry.

Thirty-two years after his epic “Duel in the Sun” with the Golden Bear, Watson took advantage of pristine conditions at the British Open to shoot a stunning 5-under 65 on Thursday.

“Not bad for an almost 60-year-old,” said Watson, who turns that age in September. “Obviously I enjoyed it.”

He had been practicing well all week, and got an extra boost a day earlier when Barbara Nicklaus sent him a text wishing Watson good luck.

“I texted her back and said, “You know, we really miss you over here,’” Watson said. “And I really meant it. It’s not the same without Jack playing in the tournament.”

Nicklaus played his final British Open at St. Andrews in 2005 and faded into retirement. But the guy who beat him at Turnberry in ‘77 still has a few shots left.

Watson kept the ball in the fairway, rolled in five birdies and bailed himself out the few times he got into trouble, including a testy 6-footer at the final hole to ensure his name would be all alone atop the leaderboard, at least for a while.

“I think there was some spirituality out there today,” Watson said. “Just the serenity of it was pretty neat.”

Tiger Woods wasn’t having nearly as much fun. On a day for going low along the Scottish coast — it was mostly sunny with little breeze off the Irish Sea — the world’s No. 1 player struggled to a 71 with one wayward shot after another. He even dunked his ball in Wilson’s Burn, which led to the last of his four bogeys at No. 16.

“I certainly made a few mistakes out there,” Woods said. “Realistically, I probably should have shot about 1- or 2-under par.”

When the round ended, Woods headed back to the range to work on his swing, which looked downright ugly with his right hand flying off the club. His first signs of frustration emerged at No. 3, when he took an angry swipe and mumbled something under his breath. By the time the day was done, he had angrily tossed away his clubs several times.

Golf’s oldest major keeps bringing out the best in the old-timers. Last year, Greg Norman was 53 when he held the 54-hole lead at Birkdale, only to fade on the final day.

Watson still has three rounds to go, and the history of major championship golf is filled with opening-day leaders who fell out of contention by the weekend. He would be by the far the oldest Open champion, a distinction held by Old Tom Morris (now that’s an appropriate nickname), who was 46 when he won the claret jug for the final time in 1867.

“I haven’t reassessed (expectations) at all,” Watson said. “I was playing well in the practice rounds, and I felt I would play very well this week.”

The five-time Open champion posted his lowest score in the tournament since a second-round 65 in 1994 — the last time it was held at Turnberry. A year ago, he shot 74-76 at Birkdale and missed the cut.

All week Watson has been reminded of his showdown with Nicklaus when the Open first came to historic Turnberry. Watson held on to win by a stroke on a sun-splashed day in what was essentially a match-play format over the final 18 holes.

“I don’t live in the past,” Watson said. “But certainly that has been at the forefront of a lot of conversations for me this week. A lot of people have been congratulating me for ‘77, and they remember it, too. It’s also amazing there’s a lot of kids in the tournament who were not even born in 1977.”

That includes one of Watson’s playing partners, 16-year-old Italian amateur Matteo Manassero, the youngest player in the field. Watson is the oldest.

With red numbers there for the taking, Americans Stewart Cink and Steve Stricker, Australians John Senden and Mathew Goggin, and Camilo Villegas of Colombia put up 66s.

In keeping with the old-timer’s theme, the 1989 Open champion, 49-year-old Mark Calcavecchia, went out in the first group of the day with his wife on the bag and shot 67. The same score was posted by 52-year-old Mark O’Meara, the ‘98 winner who now plays on the Champions Tour, and three-time major champion Vijay Singh, the kid of that group at 46. Also at 67: down-home American Boo Weekley and little-known South African Branden Grace.

Stricker, playing in the group just ahead of Watson, got a chance to keep up with his round.

“That was very cool to watch,” Stricker said. “It gives hope to everybody that you can continue to play well in your later years.”

Calcavecchia is no spring chicken himself. He recalled his 1989 performance at Troon, about 20 miles north of Turnberry, when he beat Wayne Grady and Norman in a playoff to win his only major championship.

“Yep, it was 20 years ago, right up the road,” said Calcavecchia, who had considered not playing because of back spasms. “This has always been my favorite tournament of the year to come to.”

Some of the young guns may beg to disagree. Twenty-four-year-old Anthony Kim took a 9 at the second hole and struggled with an upper-back injury, requiring treatment on the course. Twenty-year-old Rory McIlroy had a double bogey at No. 8 after taking an unplayable lie when his ball got stuck in the thick, tall grass.

Don’t forget Padraig Harrington, trying to become the first player since Peter Thomson in 1954-56 to win the Open three years in a row. The Irishman was quietly going about his work, 1 under through seven holes.

It wasn’t all fun and games for the senior set.

Norman failed to follow up his stirring performance last year, when he was 18 holes away from becoming the oldest major champion in golf history. The Shark looked every bit his age, now 54, struggling to a 77 that left him unlikely to make the cut.

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