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The Sun Hasnt Set

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135th Open Championship TURNBERRY, Scotland ' A country that clings to antiques is 18 holes away from having a relic claim the games oldest keepsake. Seems about right.
 
With his arms folded behind his back, looking more like a pondering professor than the years champion golfer, Tom Watson gave no ground on the type of day that drove sheep into furrows that would become sand traps so many eons ago.
 
On an artificial hip and genuine gumption, and on a golf course one announcer dubbed as hard as a dogs head, the five-time Open champion rolled in putts from Ayr to Maybole on his way to a third-round 71 and one-stroke lead over Mathew Goggin and Ross Fisher.
 
Tom Watson
Tom Watson reacts to his birdie putt on the 16th hole Saturday. (Getty Images)
Welcome to the 2009 Open Championship, the Duel in the Setting Sun.
 
In historical context, a Watson victory on Sunday, some 32 years after he etched his name into the games all-time highlight reels against Jack Nicklaus on these same windswept dunes, would fall into exclusive company alongside Nicklaus win at the 1986 Masters, Ben Hogans 1950 U.S. Open triumph and Tiger Woods one-legged masterpiece last year at Torrey Pines.
 
Not that Watson would ever allow himself to get that far ahead of reality, but as he inches closer to his fate he had to concede the obvious.
 
It would be special if I go out there and do what I intend to do, Watson allowed. Its impossible to overstate how improbable a road the 59-year-old now finds himself barreling down. Watson has not made a cut in an under-50 major since 2006. By comparison, Tiger Woods hadnt missed the weekend on the Grand Stage since 06.
 
Watsons last competitive round was more than a month ago and the standard for aged-perfection at a major is Julius Boros victory at the 1968 PGA Championship at a cubbish, at least by Watson standards, 48.
 
And yet despite conventional wisdom and clarity of thought, there he was on Saturday, charging his way around an Ailsa Course that was getting harder with each gust.
 
He wasnt perfect, but then he didnt expect to be. He rolled in par-saving putts of 8 feet (No. 3), 10 feet (No. 5), 6 feet (No. 13) and 25 feet (No. 14); all the while charging his attempts at the hole like the Watson of old. Before he developed what he calls hammer mitts for hands.
 
In between he posted three birdies, four bogeys and a bulletproof exterior that looked like a man on a Saturday stroll.
 
Things could have gone sideways, like they did for playing companion Steve Marino. Like on the 12th when Watson missed a 5-footer for par to drop into a tie for the lead. But he rebounded on the next hole with a steely 6-footer for par, and then rolled in cross-country birdies at the 16th and 17th. He wandered into the scorers hut with a sly smile and the look of a man with the answer to a question no one else has thought of. A man at peace.
 
On the fourth tee Watson paused to gaze out into the frothy Firth of Clyde, his pale blue eyes locked on Ailsa Craig shrouded in the distance, but ostensibly a sixth Claret Jug.
 
For some reason today I didnt feel nervous, Watson said. I guess serenity is the right word for it.
 
Surreal would be a more apt depiction.
 
But then no one who braved the cold wind on Saturday seemed to be expecting anything else. The Scots engage Watson as one of their own, an admiration he says that goes both ways: Coom on Tooom, they would yell.
 
I joked with him, You could probably be king of Scotland these people love you so much, said Marino, who played alongside Watson on Saturday. Makes sense, the man plays golf like a Scot ' fast and from the center of the clubface.
 
For the skeptics, who liked this show when it went by Greg Norman last year at Royal Birkdale, this is different. There has a for-the-ages-quality to it that even Watson is slowly warming toward.
 
The first day here, yeah let the old geezer have his day in the sun, Watson said, flashing that toothy smile. The second day you said, Well thats OK. And then now you kind of perk up your ears and say, This old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament.
 
But the question remains, how does an occasional senior win another Open Championship?
 
Ball-striking and putting are the formulaic answers. For the week Watson is among the weeks leaders in greens in regulation (70 percent) and fairways hit (73 percent) and looking with each round more like the younger Watson who feared no 4-footer than the aged version whose magical swing has been done in by a jumpy putting stroke.
 
Its hard for me to imagine him hitting too many bad shots in a round after what I saw today, Marino said.
 
Essentially, Watson has turned back the clock with experience. Each night when he heads up the hill to the Watson Suite in the resorts grand hotel he has created a game plan born from six major championships (four British Opens and two Senior British Opens) on the Ailsa Course.
 
Whether it all adds up to a historic finish, Watson declined to indulge. But the gravity of his plight was impossible to escape.
 
Who would have thought it, he smiled.
 
Indeed, who?
 
Related Links:
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