SAN FRANCISCO -- On the 14th hole at Olympic Club Friday, he hit a gargantuan tee ball, 320-plus yards, so long that he'd have needed to shout "you're away" to his playing partners back there in another time zone.

On two of the next four holes, he struck iron shots so purely that only a tap from his putter was necessary to make birdie. The day was so strangely fantastic that Tom Watson could reasonably have said to himself: "Hey, you look a whole lot like Tom Watson."

For the first time in ever so long Friday, we saw Watson with our eyes instead of our minds. We could tingle in appreciation after one of his swings instead of cringing in near-pity. How about that 5-under 65 on the second day of the U.S. Open?

"It's only one good round," he cautioned. "I'm not back yet." But then, Watson believes he's never been far away from the form so indelible in our memories.

All golfers know such addictive excellence, for one swing, for one round, for one tournament or one season. Watson's binge of brilliance lasted nearly one decade.

From the Masters in 1977 through the British Open in 1983, Watson won seven major tournaments. From a little while earlier through a little while later, he won a couple of dozen other tests that made him a golfing millionaire more than four times over.

All Watson has won lately is a lot of money. No tournaments since the 1984 Western Open. There have been whispers about why; they have been loud enough for Watson to hear.

"That I was an alcoholic," he said. "That I was going to get a divorce; that I was moving out to the farm; that I was going to fire Chuck {Rubin, his brother-in-law and manager}.

"That's people. They don't know what they're talking about. It made me upset, you might say. It hurt my wife; it hurt my parents. But it didn't hurt me."

It made him angry, and frustrated.

"I'd like to deal directly, with the source {of the rumors}," he said. Not knowing the mouth of this river of gossip, he refused to duck questions Friday. He acknowledged the rumors, and denied them. Hard. Same as he'd hit that drive on 14.

"I'm not hurting," he said. "I still do the things I need to win. But not as often. I felt like the Watson of old today."

The Watson of new had been horrid as recently as Thursday, the first round of this 87th Open.

"My heart bled for him yesterday," said his good friend, Sandy Tatum, former president of the U.S. Golf Association and partner in his first venture as a golf-course designer. "He seemed so uncertain of himself. Anyone else would have shot 80."

Watson willed a 2-over 72.

"Some great recoveries {including a holed sand shot for birdie at 17}," he admitted. "I also three-putted twice."

That was consistent with his play for more than a month. Watson missed the cut in four of his six most recent tournaments and dropped to 56th on the money list he once seemed to own.

Listen to what Jack Nicklaus had joked about himself: "I'm passing my golf game on the way down." It seemed to painfully apply to Watson.

Until Friday.

The Watson magic began fairly early, with a 45-footer that fell into the cup for birdie on the third hole. Two more long putts followed, and then Watson hit the familiar glorious groove that is so distinctive.

On four of his final five holes, Watson did not hit an approach beyond eight feet. Or a drive that was not rifle-long and accurate.

Watson gets antsy at such times, impatient to hit his ball, and then go smack it again. Oblivious to the bustling masses nearby, he sometimes whipped into his tee ball before the marshals had totally created order.

"Gotta turn it loose sometimes," he said of that mighty drive at 14, which set up a 92-yard pitch to birdland on the 417-yard hole. "You can't play that way all the way around the course. But at that instant, it was there."

Watson once would dismiss bad shots as aberrations, and go on to birdie the next four holes. Not so of late.

"You start to think," he said. "I've been thinking too much."

Had there been doubt about a return to championship form?

"Not that it would happen," he insisted. "Only when."

Had his misery been a state of mind?

"A state of body," he joked about his 37-year-old model. "You hit it farther {at 25}. You have better touch; you have better nerves."

Still, he volunteers that the last two-plus years have been an ordeal. On and off the course.

There was no absolute pit into which he dropped, Watson said, adding: "It's all been kind of the same. Everything has been low enough."

The problems Watson has endured afflict everybody, hackers and heroes: "bad swing faults; bad set-up position at address; lots of things I couldn't work out of."

A pleasant distraction the last two years has been his entrance into golf-course design, with the fabled Robert Trent Jones. The project is called Spanish Bay, the last area in a Pebble Beach complex already stuffed with magnificent courses. The idea was to create a true links course, hard by the ocean, with winds and naturally rugged terrain affecting a Scottish look.

When Watson -- or anyone else who plays the course when it opens sometime in the next several months -- crawls to the third tee, he sees golf history. And scenes that resemble those Watson thrived on in winning five British Opens, four in Scotland.

"It was a great learning experience," Watson said, and then explained why.

It seems that directions to workers doing the actual sculpture on courses must be as precise as the shots needed to score well. Watson was doing some of the actual labor, following directions for what was supposed to be a greenside bunker at the 18th hole. He dug until he struck water.

His playing too often has resembled the course Watson takes pride in helping create: "like climbing up a hill on sand." Friday, at least, the hike was sturdy. Memorably so.