Tom and Tom were in the same group.
It can’t get much better than that, right?
With the five-time Open champion watching every swing, Lewis became the first amateur in 35 years to lead a round at a major. The 20-year-old settled his nerves with one up-and-down after another on the front side Thursday, then ripped off four straight birdies down the stretch to match Thomas Bjorn with a 5-under 65.
When Lewis stepped to the first tee at Royal St. George’s, his main concern was not to embarrass himself in front of Watson. By the end, Watson was marveling at how much poise the youngster showed in his first major championship.
He’s the first amateur to lead the Open since 1968, the first to lead any major since Mike Reid at the U.S. Open in 1976.
“We certainly have a new young breed out here, don’t we?” marveled Watson, who needed seven more shots than Lewis to get around the course. “I just had to smile inside watching him play. I didn’t play particularly well myself, but I certainly was impressed by the way he played.”
Watson has been through this before. Two years ago, he was paired at the Open with Italy’s Matteo Manassero, who tied for 13th at Turnberry as a 16-year-old amateur (a feat that was overshadowed, of course, by Watson nearly becoming the oldest major champion in history).
Now, along comes Lewis, who dropped out of school when he was 16 to concentrate on a full-time golf career. Clearly, he has big plans for the future, even though he won’t officially turn pro until September after the Walker Cup.
He’s ready to take on Rory McIlroy, only two years older but already a major champion. He’d like to surpass Nick Faldo, who hails from the same town north of London and captured six of golf’s biggest events.
“I would love to win seven because I’m from the same golf club as him and it would be great to go down as the best player from the club,” Lewis said, before hastening to add, “but I’ve got a long way to go.”
He’s already knocked Tiger Woods from the record book. The 14-time major champion was one of three players who held the British Open scoring record for amateurs with a 66.
Lewis was clearly destined for this path. His father, Brian Lewis, played a few years on the European Tour and always considered Watson his favorite player. When Lewis had a son, there was little doubt he would be named for the five-time Open champion.
(And when the Lewis’ had another son, he was named Jack, as in Nicklaus.)
Young Tom is dyslexic, so school was a struggle. He jumped at the chance to take a different path, to devote his life to golf at a time when most kids are focused on dating and homework. That decision paid off when he won the British Boys Championship two years ago – at Royal St. George’s, no less.
Maybe that’s why he looked so comfortable making his way around the place. More than anyone with an afternoon tee time, he took advantage when the wind died down and left the course ripe for the taking.
Amazingly, the youngster needed only eight putts to get through the first eight holes. Some of that was by design – birdies at the 3rd, 7th and 8th – but the rest were saves after he missed the green. He kept bailing himself out with a delicate touch, chipping up next to the flag and sinking the putts.
Bogeys at the 11th and 13th could have stymied his momentum, but Lewis pulled himself together.
He reached the front edge of the par-5 14th in two, setting up a two-putt birdie. At the 15th, he stuck a 6-iron to 8 feet and rolled in another. The par-3 16th produced a third straight birdie when a 7-iron off the tee curled up a half-dozen feet from the hole. Finally, he knocked a 20-footer straight in the middle of the cup at 17 to make it four in a row.
Just like that, he had pulled even with Bjorn.
The kid was leading the Open.
“How about that?” Watson said. “He could be my grandson.”
Lewis stepped up to the final hole and ripped his tee shot right down the middle of the fairway. He pushed his approach right of the flag, the ball sliding off the side of the green. His head dropped, then he made perhaps his biggest blunder of the day.
Instead of letting Watson take the lead on their walk toward the grandstands, giving the fans a chance to acknowledge the popular champion, Lewis hustled up to the green ahead of him.
“I was in the zone,” Lewis said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. I walked up to the green, and I didn’t realize I probably should have waited for Tom, and I felt very bad. But I was just mostly concentrating on making that up-and-down and making sure I was at the top of the leaderboard.”
One more exquisite chip left him about 2 feet from the cup, and he rapped that one in for a par that ensured, for one night at least, he was the one everyone but Bjorn was chasing.
British Open leader.
It has a nice ring to it.
“Obviously, it’s one day,” Lewis said. “I’m sure I’m not going to shoot four 65s. But if I did, I will be winning.”
That one got a hearty chuckle. Realistically, Lewis knows his chances of claiming the claret jug are still slim, at best. He’s mainly concerned with making the cut Friday and finishing with the lowest score among the five amateurs.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have big goals for the not-so-distant future. Lewis looks forward to dueling with McIlroy on a regular basis for years to come.
For now, he’ll settle for a six-shot edge on the U.S. Open champion going to the second round.
“It’ll be tough to hold him off,” Lewis said. “But that’s what we play golf for, the challenge. Hopefully I can play with him sometime in my career or this year. That would be excellent.”
Rory and Tom.
That has a nice ring to it, too.