Watson Leads US Open

By Mercer BaggsJune 12, 2003, 4:00 pm
OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- You dont need a catchy headline. Dont need a clever lead. All you need are eight little words: Tom Watson is leading the United States Open.
 
Yep. Tom Watson. The 53-year-old. The man who won at Pebble Beach 21 years ago.
 
Why not? Whether irony or coincidence, this just happens to be where Watson played in his first professional tournament. Not the event, but the site. He played in the 1968 Western Open at Olympia Fields, won by Jack Nicklaus. Watson, an 18-year-old amateur at the time, achieved his goal of making the cut.
 
I relied on a lot of past memories, Watson said Thursday. Its come full circle, I guess you might say, from my first professional golf tournament in 1968 to maybe my last National Open in 2003, you never know.
 
Watson, who is in on a special exemption, bogeyed his first hole at Olympia Fields, and then proceeded to tie his career-best score in 105 rounds in this championship. Over an indomitable final three holes, he made two birdies and saved par at the last for a 5-under 65.
 
Its been said this event ' on this course ' can be won by manybut Tom Watson?
 
I am still the guy I used to be, he said, sweater draped over his shoulders, looking ever-so at ease in the interview room. Maybe its just for one round, lets find out after Sunday.
 
Joining the eight-time major champion at the top of the leaderboard is self-described underachiever Brett Quigley. Quigley gathered some inspiration from playing partner Brian Davis, who was 5 under through his first four holes Thursday before fading to a 1-over 71.
 
That was some of the best golf I had ever seen, Quigley said. Then, all of a sudden, I birdied 6 and I was 3 under.
 
Taking a carefree approach ' and not focused on playing perfect golf ' the two-time Nationwide Tour winner recorded seven birdies and two bogeys.
 
I think in the past, Ive gotten caught up in, Its a U.S. Open; youve got to hit fairways, youve got to hit greens, he said. My game is, I dont hit it very straight, but I can move it out there plenty good, and I make a lot of birdies and a lot of bogeys. And today was a pretty good indication of that.
 
In all, 24 players broke par. Justin Leonard and Jay Don Blake went out early and posted 4-under 66. Australian Stephen Leaney and Jim Furyk had 67s.
 
It was the lowest first day of scoring in the U.S. Open in a decade. The easiest came in 1990 at Medinah ' outside of Chicago, as well ' when 39 players finished in the red. Incidentally, Hale Irwin was the winner, making him the oldest Open champion, at 45 years 15 days. He, too, received a special invitation to play that week.
 
Two-time champion Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie are all in a logjam at 1-under 69. Masters champion Mike Weir had 73. Leading money earner Davis Love III shot 76.
 
Then theres defending champion Tiger Woods, who failed to make a birdie in the first round for the second consecutive major. He managed that dubious accomplishment in a Thursday 76 at the Masters.
 
This time, he used an eagle to offset a pair of bogeys for an even-par 70. He hit only six of 14 fairways and took 33 putts. He did hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation, but that didnt set up many green-light opportunities at birdie.
 
His lone highlight came when he roped a 3-iron from 256 yards to 25 feet on the 555-yard, par-5 sixth, his 15th hole of the day, and converted the putt.
 
When I trusted my swing I hit it perfect, and when I tried to steer it just a touch or bow it down and just try to get it in play, I didnt hit the ball straight at all, he said. Im hitting it well when I step up and trust it, Ive just got to do that more often.
 
Trust ' though an enemy for years ' was Watsons ally Thursday. After the bogey at the 10th, his first hole, he holed his 6-iron approach shot from 171 yards at the par-4 12th. He added birdies at Nos. 16 and 1 to get to 3 under.
 
Following a series of pars from holes 2-6 ' which along with the No. 1 are deemed the easiest stretch on the golf course ' Watson birdied the 212-yard, par-3 seventh. His 45-foot putt died on the edge of the cup. He smiled at his misfortunate, and then erupted in celebration ' throwing his hands in the air and jumping all of six inches off the ground ' when it finally dropped in. He closed in style, making a 20-footer at the eighth and a eight-footer to save par from a greenside bunker at the 496-yard, par-4 ninth.
 
Watson took the fewest putts of the field in Round 1. He said he used an old Ping putter, thanks to some encouragement from his caddie, Bruce Edwards
 
Twenty-one years ago, Watson chipped in on the 71st hole en route to defeating Nicklaus for his first and only U.S. Open crown. While running around in jubilation on the 17th green on that occasion, he pointed to Edwards, to whom he told he would make the impossible shot.
 
Edwards is now suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrigs Disease. Each time you see him you notice a deterioration in his condition.
 
Watson has seen it from the start.
 
He helps his caddie of 30 years and great friend of equal amount pay medical expenses. He provides whatever he can. If only he could offer a cure.
 
Thats why Watson went into a lengthy speech about the insidious disease, trying to educate the media, as well as those watching the televised interview at home. He said a cure may be found in five to 10 years.
 
The average lifespan for someone with ALS is three years.
 
Thursday was more special than even Watson could express, though he tried.
 
Its quite a memory for me, to be able to play the last few holes in the U.S. Open, my favorite tournament, most difficult tournament to win, with my friend and caddie for 30 years, he said. If I shoot 90 tomorrow, I dont care.
 
Quigley has a special relationship with his caddie as well. After missing five consecutive cuts, he decided to drop his bagman of 2 1/2 years and employ his father. Its worked well thus far; theyve made two cuts and qualified for this event.
 
Though its not always a Norman Rockwell painting inside the ropes.
 
At the seventh, Brett hit his tee shot into Butterfield Creek. Dad said take a drop; son said, Its a U.S. Open, I have to go in the water.
 
Indeed, it is the U.S. Open ' where men do, and sometimes achieve the indescribable.
 
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