Tom Watson, 59, Shoots 65, Trails Miguel Ãngel Jiménez by One Stroke at British Open

The 138th British Open, played at Turnberry in South Ayrshire, Scotland.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland, July 16 -- When a development comes along as it did Thursday -- when a 59-year-old, five-time champion of the British Open returns to the site of his greatest glory and pulls off a memory-jostling performance -- the tendency could be to over-romanticize the occasion, to attach meaning to the moment that, in fact, it does not carry.

Yet when Tom Watson discusses this place -- Scotland's west coast in general, the Ailsa Course at Turnberry specifically -- there is no need to suppose the man's affection for his surroundings, because it is obvious. It would be so even if he hadn't begun this Open, two months from his 60th birthday, by shooting a sterling 5-under-par 65, a score that tied him with 2003 Open champion Ben Curtis and Japan's Kenichi Kuboya and trailed only trailed only a late-charging Miguel Ángel Jiménez, who birdied the final two holes for an even-better 64.

Watson's love of this classic links course along the South Ayrshire coast, and his understanding of his place in its history, is even more obvious on a perfect day like Thursday. He played as if in his prime, making not a single bogey, firing the exact same number he did on a Sunday 32 years ago, when he bested Jack Nicklaus by a shot in the "Duel in the Sun," one of golf's most glorious occasions.

"A good day," was Watson's initial assessment of what was a remarkable achievement, because no man his age has ever contended in a major championship. He was even a full six shots better than Tiger Woods, the world No. 1 who shot a sloppy 71.

So step back for a minute, and give Watson his space to talk about Turnberry, about Scotland in general. He earned that right long ago. Thursday, he reminded everyone how and why.

"Golf is part of the fabric of life over here, in Scotland in particular," Watson said with relish. During a practice round Wednesday, a couple of Scottish spectators watched the American hit an iron shot, and said, "He'd be Lord Tom Watson -- if he were English." That is the regard with which they hold him, and he them.

"In the States, they don't know who the heck I am," Watson said. "But over here -- I don't get a big head about it, but people come up," and he switched to a mock brogue: " 'Tom, Tom, nice to meet you, Tom.' And it's much appreciated."

So now, even as Jiménez's tremendous 50-foot birdie putt from the front of the 18th green put him in the clubhouse one better than Watson, it is Watson's prerogative to wonder about the possibility that he could -- gulp -- contend in, and even win, a sixth Open championship 26 years after he took his last.

"Will I be able to handle the pressure?" Watson said. "I don't know. I don't know. Whether I'm in the hunt, who knows? The light switch may go on and I may play without too much pressure, or the pressure may be too much to handle. But I've been there before."

Albeit waaaaaaay before. Still, that counts, and other older Open champions -- among them Mark O'Meara and Mark Calcavecchia, each with 67s -- appeared on the leader board. "Experience counts for a lot around these links courses," O'Meara said.

So, too, do the conditions. On a day in which Turnberry laid down for the taking -- "defenseless," Watson called it, with a surprising lack of wind all day -- there were no fewer than 50 scores in the 60s, led by Jiménez, who had time to look at the sea and admire a corporate-sponsored sailboat idle just off the coast as he waited to play on the 10th tee.

"It looked like a pond," Jiménez said. "So nice, so calm."

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