Watson Stands Alone in British Open Lead

The 138th British Open, played at Turnberry in South Ayrshire, Scotland.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland, July 18 -- Tom Watson's round should have slipped away from him Saturday, not only because he is 59 and cannot, by any reasonable measure, be expected to be leading the British Open, but because he ran into some of the problems Turnberry's Ailsa course presents. The wind howled off the Firth of Clyde. His ball bounced a couple of places he wished it hadn't. And at one point, the lead he had held all day slipped away.

"I didn't let that bother me," Watson said.

At this point in his career -- and at this point in a week that can now, officially, be described as magical -- what could bother Watson? He has felt that chilly breeze off the Scottish coast before. He has made bogey, and will again, and recovered. And now, as he carries the lead into Sunday's final round of the British Open, he has shown every single person who has walked the sod here that he has the swing and the temperament to do the unthinkable: Win.

"He kind of had it going bad there a little bit, but it was like nothing fazed him at all, you know what I mean?" said Fairfax native Steve Marino, who entered Saturday's third round tied with Watson and played with him on an inspiring day. "He was just out there just playing golf and not even worrying about it. You would think maybe he might be nervous, being 59, trying to win the British Open. . . . But he was just cool, calm and collected."

For one of sport's all-time great stories to be completed, Watson must do that over 18 more holes. His 1-over-par 71 Saturday gave him a three-round total of 4-under 266, a shot better than Mathew Goggin of Australia and Ross Fisher of England. Those two are seeking their first major championships. Watson owns eight, the last taken in 1983.

If he is to win the ninth major, a stunning 26 years later, he would have to do what he has done to this point: play smart, hit the fairway, make clutch, hand-jittering putts to save par, and some others of miraculous lengths that just happen to fall in.

Putting, for so long, has been Watson's downfall, and there's no telling how many more tournaments -- majors and otherwise -- he might have won in the 1980s if he could have rolled the ball more confidently. But his performance here has been defined by some memorable moments on the greens, pray-they-roll-in efforts on both the 16th and the 18th in Friday's second round, and another 25-footer for birdie on No. 16 Saturday, a stroke that thrust him back into a tie for the lead with Goggin, who was already in the clubhouse.

"Every now and then, it works, you know?" Watson said. "It's just every now and then. And boy, is it working at the right time now."

The putter worked, too, at the third hole, when Watson made an exceptional par save by burying an eight-footer. It helped again at the fifth, when he found himself in a greenside bunker, hit a decent shot 15 feet past the hole, and made the putt. Yes, he three-putted the ninth from perhaps 60 feet, and yes, he stabbed at a six-footer that didn't drop at the 12th. But when Watson has needed something clutch this week, he has, somehow, summoned it.

"When you have that feel around the greens, that keeps you going," he said. "You're not thinking any negative thoughts. If I hit it in a bad place, I'll get it up-and-down."

As all this happened, Turnberry was turning itself into a different course, a ferocious-but-sun-splashed course that sported a serious crosswind. The breeze, which stiffened as the day went on, flew in directly from the ocean, creating an entirely different feel than Friday, when it howled from the north.

Given that, even as Watson's score looked indifferent -- 1 over on the opening nine after that bogey at the ninth -- others couldn't make a charge. Marino, who entered the round tied with Watson at 5 under, appeared to plummet from contention when he played one four-hole stretch in 5 over, dropping back to even by the time he reached the fifth. He finished with a 76 and is five strokes behind Watson. The other likely challengers -- including 1989 Open champ Mark Calcavecchia, who at 49 entered play Saturday one off the lead -- could not muster a run. Calcavecchia shot 77. First-round leader Miguel Ángel Jiménez shot 76. Japan's Kenichi Kuboya and Fiji's Vijay Singh carded 75s. No one in the final six groups of the day broke par.

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