July 15, 2009

Home Again

For one magical round at Turnberry, Tom Watson was once more the player who dominated the British Open. Even he's curious to find out if it can continue

At the age of 59, Watson is looking for his sixth British Open title.

At the age of 59, Watson is looking for his sixth British Open title.

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- The green metal grandstands at the 18th green at Turnberry were only half-full when Tom Watson approached on Thursday, walking up the right side of the fairway. But if the number of fans was small, their welcome was loud -- a standing ovation and cheers for the 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1983 Open champion ... and the player back atop the Turnberry leaderboard.

Watson's gray slacks and black-and-gray argyle sweater matched the color of the sky above Turnberry, the same place where Watson claimed the second of his five Open Championships. Watson's face is of the same ruddy complexion as years ago, although Tom Sawyer's boyish face is deeply wrinkled. But that's to be expected. He was 27 then, he's 59 now.

Moments after he closed out his five-under 65 to take the early first-day lead, Watson removed his cap, shook hands with his playing partners and then walked over to a roped-off area just off the green near the grandstand. That's where Tom Lindsay sat with his wheelchair-bound wife, Margaret. Watson handed a golf ball to Margaret.

"We'll treasure that ball greatly," said Tom, from Darlington, England. He said he and his wife had been in the gallery to see Watson's victory here 32 years ago.

"It was great," Tom said.

And so, once again, was Watson. He really was great, for a moment stuck in time, at a place he once ruled, in a tournament he used to own. You could just tell by the way he closed out his round. Watson drove into the right rough, not the knee-high stuff, but the ankle-deep variety. He pulled out a seven-iron and swung smoothly, chasing the ball out of the rough, bouncing it onto the green, an old master artist signing his work.

Later, Watson imitated the sound of the ball bouncing up the fairway onto the green: "Duh doom, duh duh doom."

They have a saying around here about the weather. It concerns the giant rock that's 10 miles offshore. If you can't see the Ailsa Craig, it's raining. And if you can see Ailsa Craig, then it's going to rain.

But what should they be saying now about Watson, who seems to be part of the topography here? Sergio Garcia, who played alongside Watson, has an opinion.

"If he plays the way he played today, he can beat Tiger Woods and everybody else," Garcia said. "The only thing he lacked was a little bit of length, but the quality of his shots was awesome to watch."

It was close to an error-free day for Watson, a five-birdie, no-bogey stroll along the Ayrshire Coast he knows so well. He said afterwards that his plan for the remainder of the afternoon included lunch at the Turnberry Hotel across the street, followed by a nap.

"At my age, naps are a necessity," Watson said.

He gave the impression Thursday that he could play Turnberry in his sleep. Watson has shot 65 eight times in majors -- and four of them have come in the Open here. The other three were the third and fourth rounds in 1977 and the second round in 1994.

The way he talked about Turnberry, he sounded as if he were discussing an old friend. Watson said he realized soon enough that this was going to be no ordinary day.

"I think there was some spirituality out there ... just the serenity of it was pretty neat," he said.

Watson mentioned he had received a text message from Barbara Nicklaus, Jack Nicklaus' wife, wishing him good luck.

Watson said he texted Barbara back and said he missed both the Nicklauses.

"And I really meant it. It's not the same tournament without Jack playing."

Some 32 years ago, Watson defeated Nicklaus by one shot in the famed "Duel in the Sun" on the Turnberry links. But Nicklaus, who is 69, hasn't played the British Open since 2005 at St. Andrews. Watson is working on his 32nd British Open (he didn't play in 1996, 2004 and 2007).

After next year, there may not be another. Watson turns 60 in September, and the British Open rules stipulate that a player can't participate once he turns older than 60, unless he qualifies for the tournament. That may be a long shot, but then again, after the start Watson enjoyed Thursday, maybe it really isn't.

He can't actually win this thing, can he? Watson was frank, as usual.

"So how am I going to do? That's what you want to know. How am I going to do the next three rounds? Well, I don't know. I don't have a clue.

"I still feel as if I can compete against the kids."

For one day at least, Tom Sawyer was back.