TURNBERRY, Scotland (AP) — Steve Marino got a kick out of playing links golf for the first time. Took right to it, in fact.
Playing in the final group of a major on the weekend for the first time? With Tom Watson, no less?
Well, that was a little different.
Marino made it to the big stage for the first time in his fledgling career Saturday with a 67-68 start to his first British Open, but the nerves sure showed during a wild ride Saturday along the Scottish coast.
“It was a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly out there,” Marino moaned.
The 29-year-old went tumbling down the scoreboard in the first five holes, losing five strokes. He plugged his ball in the side of a hill, had to drop from an adjoining fairway and took triple bogey. He missed a bunch of putts inside 10 feet, the sort of thing you just can’t do trying to win your first major championship.
But Marino also had an eagle, nearly made another and closed with a birdie-birdie finish that kept him on the fringe of contention, even as everyone else at Turnberry was toasting Watson, his 59-year-old playing partner in the last group and the improbable leader heading to the final round.
“Right now, I’m a little bit bummed out because I really hung in there in the middle of the round,” said Marino, who finished with a 6-over 76 that included only seven pars. “It’s amazing how fast you can let a pretty good round get away from you.”
He certainly deserves credit for hanging in there. His round started dismally – three straight bogeys beginning at No. 2, then a double bogey at the fifth when he drove his tee shot into a bunker, hit a poor approach that left him with a treacherous line above the hole, and wound up missing a short one after he finally got it down near the cup.
But two brilliant shots gave Marino a virtual tap-in for eagle at the par-5 seventh, and his first birdie of the round at No. 11 carried him within a stroke of Watson for the lead.
“I was going along so well and all of a sudden it was like, bam!” Marino said. “Next thing you know I was like 8 over for the round.”
He made a bogey at No. 12, but a few of those are acceptable with the wind howling off the Irish Sea and only five players managing to break par. Marino’s real trouble came at the par-3 15th, where one bad shot off the tee led to all sorts of mayhem.
It took awhile just to find the ball, lodged among the tall grass on the side of a hill. A marshal finally located it, and Marino pondered whether to take a whack. But he could barely see the ball, would’ve had trouble just taking a stance and finally decided to take an unplayable.
Allowed to move his ball backward along a straight line, Marino wound up over by the eighth fairway. But there was no way he could stop a wedge near the flag, cut along the right side, and his shot skipped all the way through the green. From there, it took three more shots to get down – a devastating triple bogey.
Still shaken, Marino drove in the bunker at 16, lipped out a short putt and had to write down a second straight 6, his score for the round climbing to 8 over.
“I started playing real well, I thought,” Marino said. “All of a sudden I just missed it right on 15, had a horrible lie and my only option was to take an unplayable or go back to the tee.”
Fortunately, he still had two holes left to mitigate the damage. Taking his own advice from a day earlier – crazy things happen at a British Open and be ready to deal with them – Marino somehow pulled himself together. Again.
He had an eagle putt at No. 17, but the ball slid by the cup. He pulled out the driver at 18, hit a brilliant approach toward the flag and made the putt for his second straight birdie.
Amazingly, he’s still in the mix for the claret jug, five shots behind Watson’s 4-under 206.
“This is my first Open and it’s happened to almost every guy that’s played in the British Open, so you know it’s just crazy,” Marino said. “It was definitely a learning experience. At the same time, I’m only five shots off the lead and anything can happen in this golf tournament. I still think I have a chance to win.”
If nothing else, he relished the chance to play alongside Watson, a five-time Open champion who’s put himself in position to become the oldest major winner in golf history.
“I joked with him and said, ‘You could probably be the king of Scotland! These people love you,”‘ Marino said. “It was just awesome watching him do his thing. You know there’s a reason why he’s won five claret jugs.”
And Marino hasn’t given up on winning his first.