Brian Viner: 'Awesome' Watson rolls in the putts and turns back the years

Extraordinary display as oldest competitor ends day just one shot off the lead
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The Independent Online

Tom Watson was sent on his way yesterday with a good-luck text message from Barbara Nicklaus, whose old man Jack would have recognised the calibre of golf he played. Watson's near-flawless 65 equalled his final-round score here in 1977, when he overcame Nicklaus in the fabled Duel in the Sun.

But Watson was only 27 then. That he can still plot his way round these wonderful Ayrshire links with consummate excellence at the age of 59 shows the wonder of golf, but more particularly the wonder of Watson. Wearing a grey diamond-patterned sweater of the kind that has regrettably come back into fashion, the five-times Open champion rolled in the putts and rolled back the years.

He dropped no shots, and registered two birdies in an outward half of 33, followed by three more to come home in 32. Benign as the conditions were, with scarcely a breath of wind and the Firth of Clyde as flat as a tropical lagoon, it was an extraordinary performance by the oldest competitor in the field, so old that he can remember when diamond-patterned sweaters were fashionable first time around.

He was partnered by the youngest competitor in the field, Matteo Manassero from Italy, who qualified as the winner of this year's Amateur Championship, and is only 16. He scored a highly creditable 71, one over par, and afterwards Watson praised his "really, really good golf swing".

But whatever riches lie in store for the youngster, la dolce vita will surely never offer anything sweeter than making his Open debut alongside Watson on the day that the old geezer renewed his acquaintance, which in truth used to be a close familiarity, with the top of the Open leader board.

With the R&A having lowered the age limit for former champions, so that they can now play until they are 60 rather than 65, this is meant to be Watson's penultimate Open. But will he only enjoy a year's grace if he wins the thing? The blazers won't be debating the issue just yet, but Watson is setting his sights high. In fact, they could not be higher. "I feel inspired playing here," he said, "and I feel that I'm playing well enough to win the golf tournament." Were that to happen, it would pip what Watson considers to be the most remarkable event in the history of the game, Tiger Woods winning the US Open by 15 shots at Pebble Beach nine years ago.

A sixth Open for Watson remains nigh-on unimaginable, of course, despite the near miss of another fiftysomething, Greg Norman, at Royal Birkdale last year. But whatever happens over the next three days, his opening 65 will long be cherished by all who watched it.

Remarkably, it could have been a 63, or even a 62. Watson holed from eight feet for a birdie on the first hole, and from all of 20 feet for another birdie on the third, but he missed makeable birdie putts on the second and fourth, and left another just short on the par-five seventh, after conjuring a marvellous recovery from one of Turnberry's less forgiving bunkers.

At the 14th, another rare errant shot put him back in greenside sand. Again he recorded a par. The quality of the Kansan's ball-striking from tee to green has hardly deteriorated since his heyday, but his putting stroke, once so imperious, long ago lost its rhythm. Yesterday, however, the putter seemed possessed by the ghosts of 1977.

"Awesome" was the verdict of Watson's other playing partner, Sergio Garcia, whose own putter, as usual, seemed possessed by the ghosts of Laurel and Hardy. In Garcia's 70 there were a couple of monster putts holed and countless much shorter ones missed. Par for the course in more ways than one, and the 29-year-old Spaniard also behaved true to form in the inordinate time he took over certain shots, not least from the elephant grass to the left of the 12th.

For Watson, who hardly ever thinks about a shot when he could be hitting it, there was almost time to watch a video of the Duel in the Sun. Yet he waited patiently before knocking a nine-iron to eight feet. Awesome indeed.

As for that video, Watson doesn't really need one. "I can remember every darn shot I played in the last round in '77," he said afterwards, adding that he had drawn on those memories in once again getting round the links in 65 strokes. And now he has yesterday's memories to help him, too.