TIMONIUM, Md. – Tom Watson’s performance in the pro-am portion of the Senior Players Championship was typical of a player who had just taken three weeks off.
He plunked the ball in the water, had trouble staying in the fairway and putted miserably.
Fortunately, no one was keeping score.
When it came time to play for real Thursday, Watson shot a 4-under 66 to finish tied with Jay Haas in second place, one stroke behind unheralded Lonnie Nielsen after the opening round of the final major tournament on the Champions Tour.
Sandy Lyle shot a 67, and four others, including Bob Tway and Dan Forsman, were tied for fifth at 68.
Watson made four birdies on the front nine, then added another on No. 12 before getting his only bogey on 13. Despite missing a 3-foot birdie putt on No. 18 that would have lifted him into a tie for the lead, the 60-year-old star had absolutely no complaints.
“It was like night and day between yesterday and today,” Watson said. “In the pro-am, I played like Sam Sausage and today I played pretty darn well. I made a lot of good shots and made some good putts. It was just a good day all around.”
Watson stepped back into prominence last July when he finished second at the British Open. Although that proved he still had the talent to compete with golfers half his age, he still hasn’t won on the Champions Tour this season.
That could change this week at the Baltimore Country Club, regardless of his showing in the pro-am.
“It’s a little different playing on Thursday than it is playing on Wednesday,” Watson said.
He got off to a solid start when it counted, dropping in an 8-foot par putt on the first hole and adding a breaking, downhill 25-footer on No. 2.
“Making that 8-foot putt was a real positive,” Watson said. “Then I made a good putt on the next hole. I was just trying to get it close, and it goes in. That gets you off on exactly the right foot. It kind of opens the door.”
Nielsen birdied four of the first six holes and added birdies on Nos. 9, 12, 14 and 15. He also had bogeys on 7, 13 and 17.
“I always make a few bogeys, so three was not out of the ordinary for me. But eight birdies sure was,” he said. “I was lucky today. When I hit a good shot, I hit it in the right place. The key to the day was having so many putts up the hills, and relatively easy ones.”
It’s only the third time in 154 career starts on the Champions Tour that Nielsen has held sole possession of the lead after the first round. He has two top-10 finishes in 21 tournaments this year, including a victory in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in late June.
Seeing Watson and Haas on the leaderboard came as no surprise.
“I can think of better guys I’d rather have chasing me than Tom Watson and Jay Haas, that’s for sure,” Nielsen said. “But on a course like this, the cream is going to rise to the top, and we expect Tom and Jay to both play well. The tougher the course, the better the chance they’re going to be up there.”
Haas was 6 under and enjoying a bogey-free round until he hit a drive into the fairway bunker on No. 17 and two-putted from 30 feet. Then, on 18, he drove into the right rough and “couldn’t muscle it up” to the green, which resulted in a second straight bogey.
“I was playing pretty flawlessly up to that point,” he said. “If I’d have made my two bogeys somewhere else and birdied the last two, I’d feel a whole lot different than I do right now. I still can’t be discouraged with 66; I played really well.”