Chris McGrath: Youth wins over experience to leave Watson in Ishikawa's wake

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The Independent Online

This is no country for old men. But then nor is it much of a place for a great golfer in his prime, if he happens to be holding his putter infinitesimally askew. Neither Tom Watson nor Padraig Harrington needed the constant rebuke of the leader board, showing just what Rory McIlroy was able to do in the unexpectedly benign conditions. They had a young buck of their own for company, in Ryo Ishikawa, and by the end of their opening round he was the only one entitled to be confident that he will be staying for the weekend.

The previous evening, as the rain lurched across the Fife coast, the tap-room sages had all pronounced that the Old Course would reserve its favours for those who approached with both guile and respect. At the best of times, they reckoned, a major tends to punish the insolence and impetuosity of youth. You need only contrast Watson in the Open last year with Ishikawa himself at the US Open at Pebble Beach last month, when he dissolved from a tie for second to 33rd. If this tempest kept up, the home of golf would offer a merciless rite of passage.

In the event, however, the course instead lay anaesthetised under a soft, damp morning of perfect calm. And Harrington walked out on to the tee and limply hoisted a straightforward wedge into the Swilcan Burn, whose status as guard to the first green is considered pretty ceremonial. Dropping a new ball perilously close to the lip of the Burn, he then whacked it several yards past the pin, and ended up with a double-bogey. Watson must have thought he had seen everything now, having of course contested his first Open here in 1873. Ishikawa, likewise, completed a bemused par. Perhaps Harrington sensed that his draw had been somewhat invidious.

Here was Watson, at 60, shuffling around like everyone's favourite uncle, that wide, flat grimace permanently on the cusp of a grin. And there was Ishikawa, with his McIlroy mane, unfeasibly accomplished and assured for a kid of 18. In theory, as a dual Open champion in his pomp, Harrington should have provided this group with its centre of gravity. That is certainly the way he conducts himself, a beautifully composed mover even in the walk, all dignity and sobriety. Ishikawa, understandably, has a rather jaunty way about him; but the galleries left no doubt that if anybody owned the place, it was the old guy in behind.

They did not mind that Watson's tweeds were soggy round the ankles as early as the second, where he stabbed out of the rough into an evil bowl under the green. ("I haven't had a putt like that hardly at all in my lifetime," he said afterwards. "Unless I've putted on the Himalayas.") Nor, in fact, that he would drop shots on the next two holes as well, before finding respite on the fifth, where all three picked up the obligatory birdie, on what is only a genuine par-five for those using snooker cues.

Harrington was proving perfectly solid in his groundwork, but the finishing touches had deserted him. On the par-three 11th, for instance, he nailed his tee shot to the glassy summit of the green, only to miss out on his birdie putt; whereas Ishikawa, whose tee shot apparently ricocheted off a sprinkler head, saved par serenely. Approaching the double-decker green on the next, Ishikawa caressed a delicate lob right under the pin, to set up his birdie; Harrington, trying to run it up, misjudged the pace, watched it roll sarcastically back towards him, and was obliged to settle for par.

The Japanese boy's round found its one blemish in a bunker on the next fairway, but while two consecutive birdies finally took Harrington under par, each slipped back into their divergent rhythms over the final three holes. Harrington scooped waywardly from the rough on the edge of the 16th green; dropped another shot when curling round the hole on 17; and finally squandered a lovely wedge on to the last green. As he said later: "I did all the superfluous things very well, and the important things badly. Obviously starting the way I did really didn't help. After that there was no momentum. I don't need actually to play any different, I just need to score better."

Ishikawa, in contrast, maintained a delectable touch in his approach work, and went back to four under after chipping delicately into the shoulder of the final green. He still lacks physical substance, and so a little power, but after finishing up with a 68 he does look a quite prodigious talent.

"Old Tom", meanwhile, had gone through the green on the 17th, only to be reprieved from the road by its grass verge; and he then ran back down the lip of the final green. On both occasions, however, he salvaged par – to the noisy satisfaction of the stands – and ultimately ended the day level with Harrington on 73, one over. Both men had been awarded honorary degrees by the local university earlier in the week. Yet here they had been taught a lesson by a lad barely old enough to come here and study for a real one.

Of course, it is still early days; time, yet, for some seasoned advice. "The lady didn't have any clothes on today," Watson cautioned. "She was there for the taking. But she'll put up her dukes and hit you a bunch of times. What's going to happen is that it's going to blow hard the next three days. And what she gave away this morning, she will take away the next three days."