SOUTHPORT, England - For a time on Thursday morning, it seemed like 1983 all over again. Perched atop the leaderboard at the 137th Open Championship was Thomas Sturges Watson. It didn't last, of course. How could it? He's almost 59 years old. It's been 33 years since his first Open victory, 25 years since his fifth win, a decade since his last win on the PGA Tour, and at least twice that long since his putter stopped loving him like it used to in the 70s.
"I was leading the Open Championship," Watson said with a grin after signing for a round of 4-over-par 74 in wet, blustery conditions at Royal Birkdale that left him just four strokes behind the leaders. His solid round included three birdies and far outpaced modern superstars like Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh.
Despite struggling on holes playing into the wind — he couldn't reach the fairway at the 436-yard 11th despite a "flushed" drive, and couldn't get to the green with a 3-wood second shot — Watson more than held his own with his two playing partners. Justin Rose (74) and Aaron Baddeley (75) were both in diapers when Watson hoisted his last Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale a quarter-century ago.
Asked if he drew on his experience to combat the foul weather, Watson likened the conditions to those he encountered in the first round at Muirfield in 1980, when he and Lee Trevino "lapped the field" with rounds of 68. Neither Rose nor Baddeley was even born then. Today their group was put on the clock for several holes due to slow play, and it wasn't the old man of the threesome who was to blame. When asked if he was frustrated by the pace of the youngsters (who have a combined age of 54), 58-year-old Watson smiled. "They played better when they played faster."
"It was fun for me," Watson said of his opening round. "I let a couple of putts slip away but I'm pretty happy with a 74. We'll see what happens the rest of the week."