Tom Watson Captures Scotland's Heart as He Tries to Capture Another British Open Title

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 -- It is hardly unusual for a man less than two months shy of his 60th birthday to spend some time playing golf, especially in Scotland, the birthplace of the game. Yet Saturday, here was Tom Watson -- he of the replaced left hip and deeply creased cheeks -- not just playing a casual round of golf, but somehow leading the British Open.

That statement, three decades ago, would have seemed quite normal. Now, though, Watson is older than every one of his 155 opponents who began the tournament. He is a legend here, because he won five British Open titles. But that was between 1975 and 1983, when he was the age golfers are expected to be in their primes. Sunday, the legend will try to do something no 59-year-old -- heck, no 49-year-old -- has ever done: win one of golf's four major championships.

"I'm not thinking of that," Watson said Saturday after he shot a 1-over-par 71 on Turnberry's blustery Ailsa course, and it is the standard answer he has given as this inherently preposterous idea has somehow become plausible.

He holds a one-shot lead over two men -- Australian Mathew Goggin, 35, and Englishman Ross Fisher, 28 -- who are of the typical ages and places in their lives to accomplish such feats. Fisher, for instance, is awaiting the birth of his first child, and says he'll leave the tournament if his wife goes into labor. Watson, by contrast, has a daughter two years older than Fisher.

"I don't know what's going to happen, but I do know one thing: I feel good about what I did today," Watson said. "I feel good about my game plan. And who knows? It might happen."

Watson understands how absurd this all is, because as both an avid student of and a major part of the game's history, he has been well versed in the fact that Julius Boros is his sport's oldest major champion. But when Boros won the PGA Championship in 1968, he was but a child at 48.

Greg Norman, the Australian champion whose best days spanned the '80s and '90s, surged to the third-round lead in this tournament a year ago, but he was a sprightly 53. Watson captured some of that feel when he opened with a 5-under 65 on Thursday and was one shot off the lead. Watson knows the story line was supposed to end there, and he would cede to the actual, serious competitors for this title -- such as the world's best golfer, Tiger Woods. Except the story hasn't ended. Indeed, Woods played too poorly to qualify for the third round. Watson, thus, has ceded exactly nothing.

"The first day here, yeah, let the old geezer have his day in the sun, you know, [with a] 65," Watson said. "The second day, you said, 'Well, that's okay. That's okay.' And then now, today, you kind of perk up your ears and say, this old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament."

He does, indeed, have a chance. That it would be here, at Turnberry, is appropriate, because it is where, 32 years ago, he engaged in what is now called the "Duel in the Sun" with perhaps the best player of all time, Jack Nicklaus. Watson won that tournament by a single shot, and it is still discussed here today, the perfect combination of superior play and marquee characters.

It is the reason why he stays in a suite this week that sports a brass plaque above the door bearing his name, and a significant reason why, as Watson walked the course, he said he felt a connection to the fans. It is mutual.

"I don't think you'd find anyone out here who wouldn't be pulling for Tom Watson," said Scott MacLeod of nearby Ayr. "The 'Duel in the Sun' was such a big occasion. He's a good guy. He's not controversial. He's always smiling. If you went to the local clubs and pubs tonight, 99 out of 100 people would be for Tom Watson."

So as he walked onto each green Saturday, the Scottish fans greeted him warmly, and he smiled and waved back. His playing partner, Steve Marino of Fairfax, turned to him at one point and said: "You could probably be the king of Scotland. These people love you."

"It's hard for me to imagine him hitting a lot of bad shots in a round of golf, to be honest with you, after what I watched today," Marino said.

That he can do this, at 59, is because of the sport he chose. Other stars have made comebacks in other sports -- Michael Jordan in basketball, George Foreman and Evander Holyfield in boxing, Jimmy Connors in tennis. The skills necessary for those pursuits -- speed, explosiveness, strength -- are less important in golf.

"The game of golf is long-lived," Watson said. "We've always said that you play this game a lifetime, and that's not a cliche. You start at any age, and you can continue to play this game for a long, long time."

No, Watson doesn't hit the ball as far as the men he will try to beat Sunday. Sure, his putting stroke has been, over the years, jittery from time to time. But he is here, on the west coast of Scotland, beyond the sunset of his career, summoning feelings from decades ago -- without the nerves.

"I felt, I guess, serene," he said. He is, after all, at a point in his life when serenity can, finally, be achieved.

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