Commentary

Watson on the brink of making history

Originally Published: July 18, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- Across the street from the course he helped make famous is a luxury hotel that sits atop a majestic hill and is quite the sight for golfers heading to the home hole at Turnberry.

Inside there is a suite named for Tom Watson, the man who won the first Open Championship here in 1977 after an epic "Duel in the Sun" with Jack Nicklaus.

Guess who's staying in those digs?

It is only appropriate that Tom Watson get the room that bears his name, a fitting gesture for the five-time Open champion, one that takes on added significance now that he is the oldest player to ever lead a major championship through three rounds.

[+] EnlargeTom Watson
Warren Little/Getty ImagesIf Tom Watson were to win Sunday, he'd get -- among other things -- an exemption to play the British Open until he's 69.

At age 59, Tom Watson -- eight-time major champion -- is on the verge of a remarkable victory, one that it could be argued would surpass anything in the game's history.

He would be the oldest major champion by 11 years.

He would win for the first time on the PGA Tour since the last of his 39 victories in 1998.

He would win a major championship for the first time since capturing the Open Championship in 1983 -- 26 years ago -- at Royal Birkdale.

He would match Harry Vardon for the most Open Championships with six, not to mention tie a couple of guys named Ben Hogan and Gary Player with nine majors overall.

And we are to believe it would be a restful night in the Tom Watson Suite at the Turnberry Hotel?

"I feel like my nerves are too well fried to feel them," Watson said to laughter after a third-round 71 gave him a 1-stroke lead over Australia's Mathew Goggin and England's Ross Fisher heading into the final round. "Let's just kind of go with what I've got. I'm not thinking about that."

But he'll have plenty of time to think about it.

After leaving the media center at about 8:15 p.m. local time Saturday night, Watson had more than 18 hours until he would tee off in the final round.

"He'll be nervous; if he wasn't nervous, you wouldn't want to be in this position," said Andy North, Watson's close friend who walked the entire third round as an analyst for ABC-TV. "This is what he lives for. This is what he lives his whole life for. He's very competitive. And he loves getting in this position."

Watson admitted, however, that this is an emotional experience. He thought of his former caddie, Bruce Edwards, who died on the eve of the 2004 Masters from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). He mentioned it to his current caddie, Neil Oxman, a friend he's known since the early 1970s.

"After I hit my shot on the green at 18, handed him the club and said, 'Bruce is with us today.' He said, 'Don't make me cry.' So he started crying and I started crying.

"I'm not thinking of that. That's your business to think about that.

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

This unlikely development caught the attention of a certain Golden Bear in Florida, who was playing his home course, The Bear's Club, then strolled into the clubhouse Friday in time to catch a highlight of Watson's improbable 60-foot birdie putt.

On Saturday, Nicklaus tuned in again and said through a spokesman: "Like everybody else -- including Tom -- I had some tears in my eyes."

All of it prompted Nicklaus, 69, to send his very first text message -- something his wife, Barbara, had started doing before the tournament -- wishing Watson well.

"I think he will deal with it; he'll deal with it fine," Nicklaus said. "Whether or not Tom plays well tomorrow, whether or not he wins, it doesn't make a difference. Of course, we would all love to see Tom win, but what he has accomplished already is a phenomenal achievement."

As for Watson's chances, Nicklaus -- who also defied the odds and won the 1986 Masters at age 46 -- believes that experience trumps age in this case.

"Absolutely. Not many people at his age can take the swing he has," Nicklaus said. "He has always had such a beautiful, full turn and it hasn't changed.

"This week, he has also made the putts when he's had to make them. How many times in the last two days has he dropped behind only to come back? He drove the ball beautifully today; he's hit some great golf shots and he's making putts when needed.

"The thing Tom will realize is that this golf course is not very easy. No matter what everybody else does tomorrow, they will make mistakes. He will, too. And he knows that. The key for him is to just not let the mistakes multiply or manifest themselves into a bad hole. If Tom plays smart golf tomorrow, he is the favorite. And l do not anticipate him playing anything but smart golf."

Nicklaus, 69, added: "Nothing would please me more than to see the old boy win."

A few others will have something to say about that.

Goggin, who has never won on the PGA Tour, was the only player in the top seven to break par, shooting 1-under 69.

Fisher and England's Lee Westwood, who is 2 strokes back, offer a local rooting interest as either would become the first Englishman to win the Open since Nick Faldo in 1992.

Lurking are major championship winners Retief Goosen and Jim Furyk, as well as Stewart Cink.

But like Greg Norman last year, Watson has the immense experience of playing links golf at his disposal and still possesses a golf swing that is more than capable of hitting solid shots under pressure. Norman wasn't able to get it done, succumbing over the final nine holes to Padraig Harrington at Royal Birkdale.

And yet those chasing Watson will be just as nervous or more so.

Goggin, who will be paired in the final twosome, is still in awe of Watson from when they played together during the third round of the 2003 Open at Royal St. George's.

"It was shocking just how good he was," Goggin said. "I mean, it was ridiculous. I played with him and I'm thinking he's getting on in years and not playing so much and he's just smashing it around this golf course. I was really impressed. It was definitely a highlight of the Open for me."

"He's in complete control of his golf swing," said North, who teamed with Watson to win the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf on the Champions Tour in 2008. "That's all you can ever ask as a player. His hip is getting better. He's got more freedom in his golf swing than he had two months ago. He is very confident in his ability.

"I thought before the week started that he would be competitive here. It's a golf course where you can compete against everybody. You don't have to hit it eight miles. He's probably played this golf course better than anyone who has ever played here."

So it comes down to a final 18 holes at a place that has helped define Watson's career, a place where he resides in his own suite ("I'm paying full bore," he said), a place that he will own if he is the one holding the Claret Jug.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com