Time Machine Tom Watson turns back the clock


135th Open Championship TURNBERRY, Scotland ' Its impossible to walk 10 steps around these hallowed grounds without seeing a reminder of the 1977 Duel in the Sun. The epic battle between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry is still regarded as one of the most electric major championships ever and signage, video reels, scoreboards and shirts documenting that occasion blanket this place. Theres even a pub here named after that magical Sunday.
Tom Watson tips his hat to the gallery after making birdie on No. 12 in the first round. (Getty Images)
Nicklaus hasnt played a British Open since 2005 at St. Andrews so Watson has been asked ad nauseum this week to recall the events from 32 years ago. He talked about his love-hate relationship with links golf in the early years, he talked about a young neighbor girl who gave him a lucky piece of aluminum foil and heather before he won the British Open at Carnoustie in 1975 and he talked about how he could remember each of the 65 shots he took to defeat Nicklaus in 77.
But it wasnt until late Wednesday afternoon, when his pre-tournament obligations were complete, that he saw the biggest indication that hed play well this week. Watson received a text message from Nicklaus wife Barbara, who simply wished Watson good luck. Watsons return message told Barbara how much he misses spending time with the Nicklaus family during Open Championship week.
Theres something slightly spiritual about today, Watson said following his first-round 65 that put him atop the leaderboard. Just the serenity of it was pretty neat.
Pretty neat? Some in the gallery were nearly in tears watching Watson rekindle the magic that helped him win five British Opens. Someone forgot to tell Watson that its 2009, that hes 59-years-old and that hes not supposed to be leading major championships against Tiger Woods (the TW that most thought would be leading) and a handful of players who are young enough to be Watsons grandchildren.
It wasnt too long ago when Watson made noise at the 2003 U.S. Open where, then 53, he fired a first-round 65 at Olympia Fields to hold a share of the lead with caddie Bruce Edwards on the bag fighting a battle against ALS. Edwards passed away 10 months later.
This time is altogether different. This is the major with which Watson is most associated. He freely admits that hes a ceremonial golfer at the Masters and cannot contend with the kids at Augusta National. But he knows he has a fighting chance to contend here this year and next at St. Andrews, where hell play in his 33rd and final British Open.
I feel inspired playing here, Watson said. A lot of it has to do with being in the presence here at Turnberry again, just the culmination of a lot of things that have gone on already.
I feel that Im playing well enough to win the golf tournament. It doesnt feel a whole lot out of the ordinary from 32 years ago except that I dont have the confidence in my putting as I had 32 years ago. But, again, a few of them might go in.
It was vintage Watson. Dressed sharply in his gray trousers, gray and black argyle sweater with a light purple shirt underneath he smoothly charted his way through these links with five birdies, the last coming at the par-5 17th hole where he hit his tee shot longer than playing partners Sergio Garcia and amateur Matteo Manassero. Watson was in control (he hit 12 fairways and 15 greens), his putter didnt let him down as its done several times in the past and he used his vast experience and knowledge of these championships to make him seem unstoppable.
He flushed it today, Garcia said. The quality of his shots, it was awesome to watch.
Watson hit his drive in the right rough off the 18th tee but he hit a 7-iron from 200 yards onto the green and two-putted to close with a par.
Its fun to hit the ball solid, Watson said. The reason Im out here is to hit quality shots when the pressure is on. I love to compete and I still like to hit a shot when it really counts.
No one knows what to expect from Watson the next three days. He doesnt know what to expect. Prior to this he had not been playing much and had turned his attention to filming an instructional video hes wanted to produce for a long time. He doesnt know if hell be able to handle the pressure that goes with his situation, saying that some days he finds it easier to deal with than others.
But none of that matters. At least for one glorious day in Scotland the magic was back.
He did everything well, Watsons caddie Neil Oxman said.
There were signs everywhere that said he would.
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