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James Lawton: Watson turns back clock to those days in the sun

It was indeed as though nature had performed some brilliant redecoration yesterday when Tom Watson stood on the first practice tee and said of the place that he turned, 32 years ago, into the hauntingly beautiful shrine of the most competitive golf we are ever likely to see, "God, I love my office."

There is a new urgency in his affection for the place where he broke Jack Nicklaus, at least temporarily, in what will always be known as the Duel in the Sun.

Watson works under the handicap of a hip replacement and at 59 he has just one more year of qualifying exemption from the Open championship he won five times, which means that next year he is likely to make a hero's farewell, as Nicklaus did, at Royal St Andrews in 2005.

That would make the most perfect, if poignant, symmetry, but in the meantime he has a certain hope that in the 138th Open, which starts here today, he can rekindle at least a little of the glory that came so unforgettably when he challenged the man who in 1977 was seen as the golfer of the ages.

He also believes that while Nicklaus became strong at the broken places which came with the fierce rivalry of such as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and himself, Tiger Woods continues to live in his own extraordinary world.

Watson underlined a point already made by the most astonishing pre-major tournament odds in the history of the game – with Tiger 5-2 and the shortest price elsewhere with Sergio Garcia at 25-1 – when he said, "There is that element of who is challenging Tiger? You're always asking, everybody is asking. Well, you're going to have some people challenge and beat him. But he's beaten everybody a lot more than anybody's ever beaten anybody in this game of professional golf. He's had a run that's been unparalleled.

"Don't underestimate the people who are out there trying to challenge Tiger, please. Tiger to me is the best player who ever played the game and I've said that. Jack has admitted it too. You're seeing an era of golf you ought to be pleased that you can write about. But I understand the issue is trying to find somebody, let's make this a two-man race or a three-man race, but I can assure you of one thing. Tiger doesn't really care a whole hell of a lot about that."

Of course we know this about Tiger. We know he doesn't see fresh definition, only victories, one to be placed against the next, until they at least reach past Nicklaus's final total of 18 majors. Watson, plainly, believes that Woods' 15th can come easily here, at least as comfortably as he won his third Open at Hoylake three years ago. "The winner is go ing to come from those who are driving the ball well and playing it well – there is a strategy to this golf course and talking to people about Tiger's strategy, he is probably not going to hit more than two or three drivers a round, given the wind conditions. Look what he did at Hoylake. He managed the golf course and in links golf more than anything you win by managing the course. There are a couple of tournaments I won where I wasn't playing particularly well but I managed things properly. And there were others I was playing very well, such as '77."

Three years later Watson won his third Open at Muirfield, and then he was, as he clearly expects the Tiger to be over the next days, stealthy, controlled, even contemptuous of the idea of taking unnecessary risk.

Yesterday as he conjured up that 29-year-old victory his weathered face became more animated. He was also back in the company of the great man Arnold Palmer.

"When I won that tournament I laid up short of the bunkers, didn't challenge them at all. I had a great practice round on the Wednesday before the tournament and I was making every putt. Afterwards I was in the library having a coke and in comes Arnold Palmer and Jerry Pate and I think it was Andy Bean. Jerry had just won a bunch of money from Arnold, and Arnold hated to get beat, I mean, he just hated it.

"Jerry was sticking the needle in just about constantly and finally Arnie said, 'Tommy, come on, let's go out and take these clowns on for another nine holes.' So we go out and Jerry hits a perfect drive down the middle, Arnie rope hooks it left, I push it out in the right stuff, lay up short of the bunkers, Arnold is chopping it around. I hit it about 25 feet behind the hole, Jerry hits a beautiful five-iron in there about 12 feet. I make my putt, he misses it and we just absolutely killed them after that.

"Arnold got his revenge but that's only part of the story. The real part is that when I got off that green after playing 27 holes I knew that if I stayed out of the bunkers my putter would win the tournament because I was making everything."

Such certainty is no longer Tom Watson's property, but it was once in his possession and yesterday he made it seem that the time was scarcely a few hours ago.

Today, it may well be the Tiger's. For Watson, though, there is the prospect of another day in the office that he will leave finally only with great reluctance. He was asked if he thought every day about the Duel in the Sun, when, shortly before its climactic phase, he turned to Nicklaus and said, "This is what it is all about."

"No," he replied to yesterday's question, "but it was pretty good."

It was one of his three outstanding memories, along with the astonishing chip shot which also beat Nicklaus on the 17th green at Pebble Beach in the US Open of 1982 and the day when, at the age of 14, he won the Kansas City Men's Match Play.

Such are the cornerstones of a great champion's life. Such are the photographs on the desk in the office which for at least for a little while he will continue to believe was made in heaven.