PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – As Tom Watson walked up the 11th fairway Friday morning, fresh off an impressive birdie that left him at 2 under for his round, even his most ardent supporters lining the gallery wondered how long it would last.
“I hope old Tommy Boy can keep it going,” one said.
Watson couldn’t keep the birdies dropping, or avoid a few costly bogeys in the second round, putting his U.S. Open future in doubt. But the golfer who forever defined Pebble’s 17th hole with his chip-in from off the green to wrap up the 1982 U.S. Open title, gets at least two more rounds at the season’s second major.
Perhaps some of Watson’s magic at Turnberry last July will reappear over the weekend at Pebble.
Watson’s even 71 left him at 7 over. Thanks to Graeme McDowell’s bogey on his final hole that left the leader at 3 under, Watson’s 149 total meant he sneaked under the cut line – barely.
Watson will play the weekend thanks to the 10-shot cut rule. His goal for the day was to shoot 2 under, and Watson reached that number midway through his round, only to see a few costly shots take away his cushion.
“I hate to miss the cut, I really do,” Watson said after his morning round finished. “It just grates on me when I miss the cut. I hate it, I always have.”
Now he can focus on playing the weekend. Watson becomes the second-oldest player to make a U.S. Open cut, just behind Sam Sneed, who played all four rounds at age 61 in 1973. It’s the 25th time he’s made the cut at the U.S. Open.
Just in case Friday was the end for Watson, his adoring fans on the Monterey Peninsula made sure Watson felt loved and appreciated. He heard encouragement on every fairway and around every green. Watson walked up to a standing ovation from the grandstand at No. 17, the site of his famous birdie on the 71st hole in ’82, and received another roaring ovation from the patrons around the 18th green. That time Watson replaced the wry, appreciative grin he displayed all day with a bow to the grandstands.
“I think he just appreciates being at Pebble Beach and playing in an Open. I think it just brings that much more to the table,” said Watson’s son, Michael, his caddie this week. “When he bowed to the crowd, they were gracious enough to support him at 18, that was pretty nice.”
But there were no magical chip-ins from the deep, gnarly rough on this day to ensure two more rounds. He was 2 under for his round after bouncing his approach on the 495-yard 10th through the opening at the front of the green and tucking it within 4 feet.
He followed up the birdie on the 10th with a lazy bogey on No. 11 when a gap wedge from the fairway was dunked into the bunker fronting the green. On the 12th, his playing partner Rory McIlroy playfully urged Watson’s birdie putt rolling short to pick up some steam.
Another bogey followed on the 13th when Watson pulled a 7-iron from the fairway left of the green into deep rough. Even a deft flop shot couldn’t keep Watson from dropping another stroke.
Watson rallied with a birdie on the 15th, but then his two best chances at spending a relaxed afternoon with his family went away. He left a short par putt on No. 17 under the hole, then saw a lengthy birdie attempt on the 18th lip out instead of curling in.
“It was the only solid putt I hit all day,” Watson said.
Watson became the only player to participate in all five Open’s played at Pebble Beach thanks to a special exemption from the USGA. If Watson could have held on to his final round lead at the British Open a year ago, his exemption as a major champion would have given Watson five more Open’s to eagerly anticipate.
He spent the two rounds paired with Ryo Ishikawa and McIlroy, whose combined age of 39 isn’t two-thirds of Watson’s 60 years. He thoroughly enjoyed watching the rising stars up close, how far and high they hit, reminding Watson of himself in his younger years.
“They could be my grandkids,” he quipped.
Watson will start the weekend 10 back, and his best chance of getting back to an Open to play with the youngsters in the future is to win the U.S. Senior Open. Although Watson didn’t play well in the first round, when he shot 78, his performances in recent majors make winning the national championship of the 50-and-over crowd plausible.
“I certainly appreciate the USGA’s invitation. I’m grateful for it. It was a very nice thing to do for an old guy like me,” Watson said. “I wish I had played a little bit better.”