When he begins his title defense Thursday, he'll be thankful to break 80.
An injury to his right shoulder and neck forced him to pull out of the Senior Players and last week's British Open at Troon. Watson almost withdrew from this tournament as well.
'Last Tuesday I was pretty sure I wasn't going to play,' he said Wednesday on the eve of the $1.6 million championship at Royal Portrush. 'Right now, it's up in the air what I'll do tomorrow. I may go out and shoot 85. I don't know. It may work out, it may not.'
Watson partners Scotland's Sam Torrance and Ireland's Des Smyth in the first two rounds at the par-72 Dunluce Links, which hosted the 1951 British Open.
Like most of the field, he has never played the course. But, with a wealth of experience of links golf, including five victories in the British Open, he knows he has the game to master Portrush.
'This is a wonderful test of golf. There's not a bad hole on the golf course,' he said. 'We played in some strong winds and I was able to break 80. That was my goal yesterday because I had not played very much.'
Watson said the injury -- a pinched nerve that weakened his right arm -- had taken about 20 yards off his drives.
'I've got most of the strength back. But right now I'm a true senior golfer -- I don't hit it very far.'
With the next Champions Tour major, the U.S. Senior Open, next week at Bellerive in St. Louis, this event is missing a few leading players, notably Senior PGA champion Hale Irwin. He and another absentee, Craig Stadler, have won two titles each this season.
Because of scheduling problems, the Tour has been forced to squeeze four of its five majors into a six-week period and several players, citing injuries, decided against flying twice across the Atlantic between tournaments.
The beauty of this major is that few in the field have played the comparatively short links course on the northern tip of Ireland. Gary Player and Bob Charles have won the title at this course, but even established such European names as former Ryder Cup players and captains Mark James and Sam Torrance have never played the course before.
'I played it yesterday for the first time,' Torrance said. 'It was magnificent.'
James, who comes off winning another major, the Senior Players Championship at Dearborn, Mich., added: 'It's obviously a tough course, not particularly long but plays long and very tight in places.'
James said his victory 10 days ago even surprised him.
'I wasn't particularly expecting to win at all,' he said. 'I've been playing fairly solidly all year without huge reward. And then the trip before the last one I was fourth in the Senior PGA and third two weeks after that.'
Tom Kite has six victories since he joined the seniors four years ago but hasn't won for 21 months. He collected four runners-up checks last season and also tied for second at the Bank of America Championship at Concord, Mass., a month ago.
He said Watson, if able to overcome the shoulder problem, would still be the man to beat.
'The guy that's on the poster (Watson), the one who won last year, he's obviously going to be there,' he said.
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