SANDWICH, England – Tom Watson refuses to be a ceremonial player, especially when it comes to the British Open. He showed what he was talking about Friday when he quickly turned things around with a hole-in-one on the sixth hole.
Watson drilled a 4-iron from about 160 yards into the wind, a shot that looked good from the time of that crisp click off his club. He never saw the ball bang against the pin and disappear, and he paused slightly even after hearing a sudden burst of cheering from fans perched atop the tall dunes surrounding the green.
He raised his arms, and eventually turned and took a bow for a packed grandstand behind him.
“I didn’t see it,” Watson said. “You can’t see it go in. I just saw it on the replay in there. It was a slam dunk. If it missed the flag it would’ve been 30 feet by. But it was lucky. They’re all lucky when they go in. But that’s what I was aiming at.”
It’s not all luck when it comes to Watson and the British Open he has won five times.
The oldest player in the field at 61, he wound up with an even-par 70 and was at 2-over 142, only six shots behind going into the final two rounds at Royal St. George’s. Not many expect him to contend, even though memories are fresh from when he came within one putt of winning at Turnberry two years ago. Perhaps that’s because Watson has struggled with his putting over the first two days.
Watson isn’t about to give up.
“If my putting was a little bit better, I’d give myself at least an outside chance, let’s put it that way,” he said.
The ace was the 15th of his career, many of them in competition. And it stirred some recollections of other times he made a hole-in-one.
His favorite came at Oakmont in 1969 at the U.S. Amateur. Watson already was 4 over through seven holes when he came to the monstrous par-3 eighth hole. He hit 3-iron into the cup for a hole-in-one, then made birdie on the ninth to get back into the game.
“That’s a really tough golf course, and that kind of got me back into the tournament,” he said. “And I ended up qualifying for The Masters by finishing fifth. So that kind of propelled me onto that.”
And then there was the first one, which did not come with the kind of applause he heard Friday.
In fact, no one clapped at all.
He was about 11 of 12, playing alone at Kansas City Country Club, when he made an ace on the second hole. Then came the desperate search for a witness. Seems there was a promotion in Golf Digest that if someone made a hole-in-one with a Dunlop ball, it would be used to make a plaque. All that was required was the ball, scorecard and a witness.
“My elation went from here,” Watson said, holding his hand high, “to, ‘Oh, man.”’
Watson said John Cosnotti, the assistant pro, walked over to the window and looked some 400 yards toward the second hole and said, “You know, Tom, I saw that go in.”
Watson still has the plaque.
SCHWARTZEL’S BOUNCES: Masters champion Charl Schwartzel was feeling better about his chances after a 67 in the second round. He’s not sure he hit the ball any better than Thursdays, but the bounces seemed to go his way.
And yes, there are a lot of bounces.
“Yesterday I felt I was playing well. I was hitting good shots and I was getting penalized for it,” Schwartzel said. “I was hitting tee shots on the lines I was aiming for—and you’re talking one yard either way and you’re absolutely perfect—and you end up in bunkers and chipping out sideways, and now all of a sudden grinding for bogeys.
“After a while,” he said, “that starts getting frustrating.”
Then again, the South African realizes that everyone is playing the same course. Everyone will be getting the odd bounce during a round.
“That’s what you sort of comfort yourself on,” he said. “You hope someone else is getting these sort of breaks.”
Schwartzel did get some good fortune of his own in the second round. His 3-wood into the par-5 14th was headed for trouble to the left when it struck a spectator in the head and bounced back toward a bunker. He wound up making par.
“It was actually a good break,” he said. “I felt sorry for the guy, but it’s one of those things.”
STRICKER STRIKES AGAIN: Steve Stricker has a chance at a feat achieved only once, and that was 40 years ago—winning a tour event, then winning the British Open the next week.
Lee Trevino did that in 1971 with the Canadian and British Open. Only nine other players have won the week before winning a major, the most recent being Tiger Woods at the Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in 2007.
Oddly enough, Stricker couldn’t crack the top 50 the last two years that he won the John Deere Classic. On Friday, Stricker had a bogey on the easy par-5 seventh, but made enough birdies for a 71 and was only four shots out of the lead.
BACK HOME: Perhaps one reason Darren Clarke is having his best British Open in a decade is his move back home to Northern Ireland, mainly for his two sons and their schooling.
“The right time for Tyrone, my first born, to be with everybody else,” said Clarke, whose wife died of cancer in 2006. “It’s a lot easier to play better whenever family life and stuff at home is much better, much more stable again.”
The other perk?
Returning to Royal Portrush, the only links course outside Britain to host the Open Championship. It’s where Clarke grew up, learning to cope with strong wind and harsh weather. That’s what players generally face at the Open, and what they likely will get on the weekend.
“I’ve been doing a lot of practicing in bad weather because that’s usually what we get at Portrush,” he said. “It’s not always that bad. But it’s certainly been tough conditions practicing, not quite as easy as it was when I was living in London. It’s a case of getting used to playing in bad weather on links again, and that’s what I’ve been doing all over the winter and stuff at home. Hopefully, it will stand me in good stead.”
AGELESS LINKS: Tom Lehman has played three PGA Tour events this year with modest results. Put the 52-year-old on a links course that measures 7,211 yards and plays to a par 70, and he looks like a kid again.
Tom Watson is 61, nearly won the British Open two years ago, and will be playing on the weekend at Royal St. George’s.
Lehman is not surprised.
“Not being able to carry the ball as far actually benefits you in some ways on a lot of these tee shots,” said Lehman, who won the 1996 Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. “The balls that travel so much further in the air tend to land in sports which are a lot more bouncy, a lot more humps and bumps, and balls that fly shorter—like mine—tend to land on more flat spots.”
Lehman said that’s true at some links, but especially here.
“That’s one reason the older guys, or the more experienced guys, are able to do OK,” he said. “Length isn’t required. It’s more about accuracy and the line you take and hitting it where you’re aiming.”