Turning back the clock: Watson leads British Open

Thirty-two years after his epic “Duel in the Sun” with Jack Nicklaus, Tom 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 60 in September. “Obviously I enjoyed it. I played very well, kept the ball in play, made a few putts.
The course was defenceless today.

As a result, you’re seeing a lot of scores under par. I suspect by the end of the day, 65 will not be in the lead.”

At least he didn’t have to worry about Tiger Woods. On a day for going low, the world’s No. 1 player struggled to a 71 at Turnberry, hitting one wayward shot after another—including a dunk in Wilson’s Burn, which led to the last of his four bogeys at No. 16.

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 frustrating 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.

Woods’ score was especially disappointing given the conditions at Turnberry: partly sunny, no rain and barely the hint of a breeze off the Irish Sea.

The Open 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.

But those first 18 holes sure were fun—and not as surprising to Watson as they were to everyone else.

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

Watson, a 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.

Watson posted five birdies and made a couple of testy par saves, including a 6-footer at the final hole to ensure his name would be all alone atop the leaderboard, at least for a while.

With red numbers there for the taking, Americans Stewart Cink and Steve Stricker, Australia’s John Senden and Camilo Villegas of Colombia put up 66s. The 1989 Open champion, Mark Calcavecchia, went out in the first group of the day with his wife on the bag and shot 67, 17-year-old Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa and Lee Westwood both shot 68 playing in a threesome with Woods.

Stricker, playing in the group just ahead of Watson, got a chance to keep up with the turn-back-the-clock 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.”

Senden didn’t even know if he’d be playing this week. He got into the tournament on Tuesday as an alternate when Jeev Milkha Singh withdrew with an injury. The Aussie stayed away from bogey and birdied four of the last six holes for a 66.

“I was lucky enough to be in the field, so that was a bonus,” Senden said.

The conditions along the picturesque Scottish coast were ideal—the sun peeking in and out of the clouds, the Ailsa Craig easily visible offshore, the flags hanging limply above the grandstands, barely the hint of a breeze.

All week Watson has been reminded of his showdown with Nicklaus in 1977, when the Open first came to historic Turnberry. Watson held on to win by a stroke in what was essentially a match-play format over the final round.

“I don’t live in the past,” he 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 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.

He got a text from Nicklaus’ wife, Barbara, wishing him luck on the eve of the tournament. Watson sent the couple back a note saying he wished they could be a Turnberry.

Nicklaus played his final British Open at St. Andrews in 2005.—Sapa, AP

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