Commentary

Watson leads senior charge at Open

Originally Published: July 16, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- Some things are not meant to be understood: Ozzy Osbourne doing books on tape, your monthly cable bill, John Daly's pants.

But the latest mind-boggling mystery comes straight from the first round of the Open Championship, where 59-freaking-year-old Tom Watson -- Tom Watson! -- didn't just turn back the clock Thursday at windless Turnberry, he built his own timepiece. The oldest player in the 156-man field put up the second-lowest number on the board, a 5-under-par 65 that left everyone here wondering whether the impossible was possible.

"So how am I going to do?" Watson said. "That's what you all want to know. How am I going to do the next three rounds? Well, I don't know. I don't have a clue what I'm going to do. I wish I could tell you. I wish I could tell you that I'm going to break the Open record and shoot 262. But we'll just see where it comes to."

[+] EnlargeTom Watson
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty ImagesDoes Tom Watson think he has a shot to win a sixth Claret Jug? "I feel that I'm playing well enough to win the golf tournament," he said Thursday.

If you said, "Take me to your almost-leader," Watson probably would be the last guy you'd expect to see. He'll turn 60 in about a month and a half, he has sweater vests older than the other two players in his threesome (29-year-old Sergio Garcia and 16-year-old amateur Matteo Manassero), and he's technology challenged.

"Don't ask me to twit or tweet," Watson said. "I don't tweet."

But he can play these quirky Scottish links courses as if he were in a 1977 time warp, which just happens to be the year Watson won his second of five Open Championships. And he won it at Turnberry, the site of his historic "Duel in the Sun" victory over Jack Nicklaus.

"I remember every darn shot I hit in '77," he said.

He'll remember Thursday, too. If not for Miguel Angel Jimenez and his 66-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to move atop the leaderboard, it would have been a day when Watson nearly became the oldest player to lead any major since World War II. It also was a day he channeled Turnberry of 32 years ago. The only things missing were "Saturday Night Fever," Disco Demolition Night and Farrah Fawcett posters.

Watson is supposed to be part of this weekend's Open broadcast team on ABC. But that was before he decided to become 27 again. Unless he goes Jaco Ahlers (an opening-round 83) on us Friday, Watson will make the cut and, who knows, maybe make history.

"If he plays the way he did today, he could beat Tiger Woods and anybody else," said Garcia, who watched Watson outplay him by 5 strokes.

"He did everything well," said Watson's caddie, Neil Oxman.

A pair of fighter jets from a nearby air base buzzed around the edges of Turnberry as Watson made his walk toward the 18th green. Fans in the amphitheater grandstands greeted him with warm, appreciative applause. They love Watson over here because Watson loves them back. He can walk unrecognized in the states, but he is a golf god in Scotland.

"I don't get a big head about it, but people come up, 'Toom, Toom,'" he said in his best Scottish brogue, "'Nice to meet you, Toom.'"

Weird -- he got a text message Wednesday from Barbara Nicklaus wishing him good luck. So what did Watson do? He birdied two of his first three holes, hit 15 greens in regulation and 12 fairways and generally pured his way around the nearly defenseless course. On No. 18, for example, he bounced a 7-iron about 200 yards from the heather to 20 feet from the pin. Try doing that in the states.

Can he win? Well, he told friends earlier in the week that he was capable of posting a nice, red number. But 5 under?

"I feel that I'm playing well enough to win the golf tournament," he said.

Watson, who had hip-replacement surgery at the end of last year, isn't the only AARP-ish player in position to make more leaderboard noise. Truth is, it was Old-Timers' Day at Turnberry during Round 1.

Mark O'Meara, 52, who won at Royal Birkdale in '98, is 3 strokes behind Jimenez. So is 49-year-old Mark Calcavecchia, who thought about ditching his favorite tournament because of five-alarm back spasms he suffered last week during the John Deere Classic. Vijay Singh, also 3 shots behind the leader, is 46. At 50, Tom Lehman -- the 1996 British Open winner -- stands 4 off the lead. Jimenez himself is 45.

"I haven't won anything lately," O'Meara said. "The last thing I won was the Par 3 Contest at Augusta a couple of years ago. … The great thing is that I know that I've won this championship. Even though I'm 52 now and maybe the odds are stacked a little against me, there's a long way to go, No. 1; and No. 2, the golf ball really doesn't know how old you are."

A reporter reminded Calcavecchia, who won the Jug in 1989 at Troon, that most players say, "I don't enter a tournament unless I think I can win it." Calc's answer: "Well, most of those guys are Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and whatnot."

The golf fogies aren't stupid. They know they're long shots. But their Ladbrokes odds just dropped, thanks to their Thursday scores.

Wrinkles aren't necessarily a bad thing here at the Open. Experience counts, especially on a course where you have to do more than bomb a driver. You have to think. You have to be creative.

"We have an advantage," Watson said. "The older guys have an advantage. We've played under these conditions, and we kind of get a feel for it. And that feel is worth its weight in gold when you're playing."

Go figure -- a TW begins the second day of the Open a stroke from the lead, but it's Tom Watson, not Tiger Woods (who shot a 1-over 71). If you're rooting for storylines, you root for the old guys.

"Will I be able to handle the pressure?" Watson asked. "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."

Here's hoping he's there again Friday. And Saturday. And Sunday.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter