Evergreen Watson proves age is no barrier once more

After going so close at The Open, former winner shares spotlight with fellow veteran Couples and with Tiger who shone on his return
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The Independent Online

Just as Tiger Woods was shrugging off five months of rust and ridicule to record an opening sub-70 for the first time in the Masters here yesterday, so two evergreen champions were proving that some sporting reputations can last a lifetime. Fred Couples and Tom Watson might have 110 years between them – but they also have the first two spots on the Augusta leaderboard.

Their age-defying feats threatened to knock the returning Woods out of the headlines. But only threatened. The returning world No 1 rightly returned to the back page after filling the front pages for too long. His 68 was an extraordinary comeback, bettering his previous best first round here by two strokes. The length of his absence was one hurdle to clear, the intense pressure represented so many more. With three bogeys and a missed five-footer for birdie on the last it could have been anything. It still could. And that's why this is setting up as one of the finest tournaments in golfing history.

A light aircraft trailing a crude banner only emphasised the spotlight he was under. But he strode on through it and did so in a fashion we had never seen before. A fresh Tiger start began with a fresh Tiger mark and a fresh Tiger attitude. He tipped his hat more often than a vaudeville dancer, said thank you more often than a grateful busker. Woods has never interacted so readily with the crowd and, in truth, has never seemed to have had so much fun.

Purely in a golfing sense, however, Couples and Watson deserved the widest smiles. The former is at the top of the leaderboard following a 66 which was the lowest first round ever posted by a player aged 50 or over in the Masters. Watson is in second, in a big-named grouping one behind on five-under. With the 52-year-old Sandy Lyle on three-under this was such a memorable day for the Seniors Tour. Perhaps the Masters should give the green jacket a blue rinse.

Couples has won the last three Champions Tour events he has played. Not too shabby seeing as he has only played four. Who was the player who denied him first up? Tom Watson. Apparently the veterans are intent on slugging it out in a bigger arena. Couples was fastest on the draw yesterday, the 1992 Masters winner notching up seven birdies. His swing is as rhythmic as it ever was, his style just as languid. If his back holds up there is no reason why he cannot become the game's oldest champion. Except there is a player with an even richer pedigree in pursuit.

Watson, now 60 years old, came within one firm bounce of achieving the impossible at last year's Open and here he has already conquered the implausible. A five-under 67 put the oldest player in the 96-man field alongside Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Y E Yang and K J Choi. His personal records dropped as quickly as the patrons' jaws.

This was his best score in 20 years at Augusta and his best opening round in his 35 years at Augusta. But perhaps the most remarkable of a veritable tower of statistics is the disparity between Watson's last two rounds here. On Friday last year he shot a humiliating 83. Here we had witnessed a 16-stroke swing.

Yet the startling transformation was as well expressed in his words as his numbers. After his agonising play-off defeat at Turnberry nine months ago, the Masters winner from 29 years ago cast a little doubt whether he would even travel to Georgia. "I don't like to go to Augusta any more because I feel like I'm a ceremonial golfer there," he had said. "I can't play that course any more unless I'm absolutely perfect."

As it was Watson was far from absolute perfection. He missed five greens in a row from the 10th. But he got it up and down each and every time, displaying the same serenity in the heat as he had on Scotland's west coast. He was determined to answer the call of his son, Michael, his caddie for the tournament. "Dad, show me you can play this golf course," he said, as they went out. Dad showed him all right.

Watson has redefined what is and isn't feasible for OAPs with plastic hips and he is plainly intent on continuing to redraw the boundaries. The Augusta National is 7,435 yards long and although it is playing short and yesterday's pin positions verged on the radically generous, it is still a brutal test. It should be beyond Watson. Yet after Turnberry nothing seems to be. "That glow from Turnberry is still around," he said. "And the glow comes from the people who watched it and who have come up to me and said, 'You've proven to me that I'm just not too old'."

This was Watson's first major round since that heartbreak and he started so differently to how he left off. While he slumped in on the Ailsa Course an old man, he strode out here like a hero reborn. He birdied the first and was faultless thereafter. There was not a single bogey on a card lit up by five birdies and, after that quintet of great escapes, followed a quite sensational climax of three birdies in the final four holes. It gave him the clubhouse lead.

Westwood soon joined him on a spectacularly-set stage. Surely the 36-year-old is to be one of this Masters' principal performers as he tries to end Britain's 11-year major drought? He came within one shot of joining Stewart Cink and Watson in that Open shootout, just as he had at the 2008 US Open. By common consent he is a major winner in waiting and yesterday all the hype of his challenge was fully justified. "That's easily my best round at Augusta," he said. "I hit every green in regulation and not many people do that around here."

Later Ian Poulter raised the patriotic hopes still further with a four-under 68. This was no day to be parochial, however. This was the day to stand back and marvel. Tom and Tiger. The champion who won't give up and the champion who had to give up. Two unprecedented tales with unprecedented possibilities.

Leaderboard: First-round scores at Augusta

(US unless stated; par 72; * = amateur)

66 F Couples

67 P Mickelson; T Watson; Y E Yang (S Kor); L Westwood (Eng); K J Choi (S Kor).

68 A Kim; N Watney; I Poulter (Eng); T Woods; R Barnes.

69 D Toms; S Lyle (Sco); T Immelman (SA); C Schwartzel (SA); A Scott (Aus).

70 F Molinari (It); S Kjeldsen (Den); Z Johnson; Y Ikeda (Japan); M Kuchar.

71 B Langer (Ger); J Senden (Aus); M Manassero* (It); R Karlsson (Swe); D Johnson; H Mahan; S Marino; M Weir (Can); E Els (SA); B Crane.

72 J Kelly; J Merrick; H Slocum; R Ishikawa (Japan); N Green (Aus); B Haas; R Allenby (Aus); M Leishman (Aus); R Palmer, R Moore; S O'Hair; K Perry; MA Jimenez (Sp).

73 B Benjamin*; A Cabrera (Arg);

S Verplank; B Curtis; S Stricker.

74 N Smith; R Goosen (SA); B Gay; T Hamilton; L Donald (Eng); G Ogilvy (Aus); K Na; S Hansen (Den); T Jaidee (Tha); R McIlroy (N Irl); C Villegas (Col); S Garcia (Sp); P Harrington (Irl).

75 R Sabbatini (SA); M O'Meara; G McDowell (N Irl); P Casey (Eng); L Oosthuizen (SA); T Clark (SA); A Quiros (Sp); J Leonard; S Flesch; B Martin*; J Rollins; J Dufner; S Katayama (Japan); E Molinari (It).

76 M Kaymer (Ger); L Mize; V Singh (Fiji); L Glover; S Cink; D Duval.

77 S Dyson (Eng); B Crenshaw; R Fisher (Eng).

78 B-h An* (S Kor); O Wilson (Eng); C Wood (Eng).

79 C Campbell; C Stadler; C-W Han* (S Kor).

80 J Furyk; A Hansen (Den); H Stenson (Swe).

81 I Woosnam (Wal).

83 M Campbell (NZ).