MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND, JULY 18 -- He started with what they used to call "a Watson par," hitting his tee shot into the rough, his second shot into a bunker and his third shot to within three feet, then ramming in the putt.

As he walked to the second tee, Tom Watson heard familiar voices all around him: "Get after it, Tommy . . . You're on a roll, Tommy." Over here, he is Tommy Watson, sort of an adopted Scot, partly because he has won the British Open five times, partly because of his unabashed affection for links golf courses and for Muirfield.

Seven years ago on a Saturday a good deal balmier than today, Watson tore this ancient links apart, shooting 64 to open a four-shot lead. He cruised to his third British Open title the next day.

The golf fans here would love nothing more than to see Watson break his three-year slump at Muirfield. And when he began the day just two shots out of the lead on the kind of blustery day he usually savors, they were poised to try to will him into the lead.

Watson stepped up to the second tee full of confidence, so confident that he pulled out his driver. For two days on this short, narrow par 4, Watson had played conservatively, hitting an iron. But there weren't going to be many birdie holes today, and with the wind blowing across, this was one of them. So, in the fashion of the old Watson, the one who won eight major championships by age 33, the driver came out. "It was the right wind and I thought the right shot," Watson said. "But I just let it get away."

The ball hooked into a fairway bunker on the left. Although he was fewer than 100 yards from the green, Watson was in trouble, his ball up close to the lip.

Then, "I tried to hit the ball real hard and I just pulled up on it like most hackers do," he said. "After I swung, I had no idea where the ball had gone."

It had moved about two feet, burying in the lip right in front of him. "Where is it?" Watson said to playing partner Payne Stewart and caddie Alfie Fyles. Mournfully, Fyles pointed to the spot. Watson looked it over and saw he had only one shot -- backward.

"I was thinking right then that this was a real crisis," he said. "I thought about Arnold Palmer yesterday and said, 'Don't go and make a 10.' "

Watson didn't make 10. He pushed his third shot to the back of the trap and from there played an 8-iron onto the green. He missed his 25-foot bogey putt and tapped in for a double-bogey 6. Ten minutes after the whole tournament seemed so open to him, it suddenly looked very bleak. To everyone but Watson.

"Believe it or not, I walked off that hole feeling good about the 6," he said. "It could have been a lot worse. I didn't get down on myself and that was the key to my round. I took a round that could have been an 80 and turned it into a 71. That's how you win golf tournaments -- take a bad round and make it into a good one."

The only shots Watson hit solidly came on the greens. On holes three through six he saved par with putts: six feet, eight feet, six feet, 10 feet. He finally missed a short putt -- three feet -- on eight to fall six shots out of the lead.

But even then, Watson stayed with it. "Tom is Tom," said Stewart. "The great players do what they have to in these tournaments. Today, he just kept making putts when he had to."

He finally made a birdie putt at the ninth, a six-footer after a good chip. He birdied 11 with a 10-footer, made another tough putt to save par at 14 and finished the round, to a huge roar of approval, by rolling in an 18-footer at the 18th. From the sands of No. 2, Watson had come back to finish right where he started: two shots behind. Friday, there were five players in front of him and three tied with him. Now, there are three ahead and two tied.

Of those first six only Craig Stadler has ever won a major tournament. "That doesn't necessarily matter," Watson said. "Who knows how the other guys will react to pressure. Some of these guys say this is just another tournament. I don't happen to think that way. I put more pressure on myself in the majors.

"I'd like very much to win this. I'd like to prove to myself that I can win again. Almost everyone has a bad round in a golf tournament; I hope I just had mine. I putted very well. The trouble with this silly game is getting the ball-striking and the putting going together. I hope I have that in me somehow for 18 holes tomorrow."

So do a lot of Scots.