TURNBERRY, Scotland (AP) — Last year, Greg Norman. This time, Tom Watson.
Twenty-two years after his epic Duel in the Sun” with Jack Nicklaus, Watson took advantage of pristine conditions at the British Open to shoot a stunning 5-under 65 on Thursday.
“Not bad for an almost 60-year-old,” said Watson, who turns 60 in September. “Obviously I enjoyed it. I played very well, kept the ball in play, made a few putts. The course was defenseless today. As a result, you’re seeing a lot of scores under par. I suspect by the end of the day, 65 will not be in the lead.”
The Open keeps bringing out the best in the old-timers. Last year, Norman was 53 when he held the 54-hole lead at Birkdale, only to fade on the final day.
Watson still has three rounds to go, and the history of major championship golf is filled with opening-day leaders who fell out of contention by the weekend.
But those first 18 holes at Turnberry sure were fun – and not as surprising to Watson as they were to everyone else.
“I haven’t reassessed (expectations) at all,” he said. “I was playing well in the practice rounds, and I felt I would play very well this week.”
Watson, a five-time Open champion, posted his lowest score in the tournament since a second-round 65 in 1994 – the last time it was held at Turnberry. A year ago, he shot 74-76 at Birkdale and missed the cut.
Watson posted five birdies and made a couple of testy par saves, including a 6-footer at the final hole to ensure his name would be all alone atop the leaderboard, at least for a while.
With red numbers there for the taking, Australia’s John Senden, American Steve Stricker and Camilo Villegas of Colombia put up 66s. Stewart Cink of the U.S. and England’s David Howell also were at 4 under while still on the course, and 1989 Open champion Mark Calcavecchia went out in the first group of the day with his wife on the bag and shot 67.
Stricker, playing in the group just ahead of Watson, got a chance to keep up with the turn-back-the-clock round.
“That was very cool to watch,” Stricker said. “It gives hope to everybody that you can continue to play well in your later years.”
The conditions along the picturesque Scottish coast were ideal for going low – the sun peeking in and out of the clouds, the Ailsa Craig easily visible offshore, the flags hanging limply above the grandstands, barely the hint of a breeze.
“It was perfect out there,” Calcavecchia said. “The course couldn’t possibly play any easier. I don’t know how long it’s going to stay like that.”
Surprisingly, overwhelming favorite Tiger Woods failed to take advantage. He was plodding along at 1 over through 16 holes, flipping his club away several times in frustration as tee shots kept flying off to the right.
No such problems for Senden, who didn’t even know if he’d be playing this week. He got into the tournament Tuesday as an alternate when Jeev Milkha Singh withdrew with an injury. The Aussie stayed away from bogey and birdied four of the last six holes for a 66.
“I was lucky enough to be in the field, so that was a bonus,” Senden said.
All week Watson has been reminded of his showdown with Nicklaus in 1977, when the Open first came to historic Turnberry. Watson held on to win by a stroke in what was essentially a match-play format over the final round.
“I don’t live in the past,” he said. “But certainly that has been at the forefront of a lot of conversations for me this week. A lot of people have been congratulating me for ’77, and they remember it, too. It’s amazing there’s a lot of kids in the tournament who were not even born in 1977.”
That includes one of Watson’s playing partners, 16-year-old Italian amateur Matteo Manassero, the youngest player in the field. Watson is the oldest.
Calcavecchia is no spring chicken himself. He remembered his 1989 performance at Troon, about 20 miles north of Turnberry, when he beat Wayne Grady and Norman in a playoff to win his only major championship.
“Yep, it was 20 years ago, right up the road,” Calcavecchia said. “This has always been my favorite tournament of the year to come to.”
But he almost passed up the chance to play this year. After playing 36 holes last Sunday at the rain-plagued John Deere Classic, the 49-year-old American had back spasms and considered staying home.
Now, he’s glad he came – though the persnickety Scottish weather can change at any time. Just ask last year’s runner-up, Ian Poulter, who had an afternoon tee time.
“Watching the golf this morning on TV,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s flat, calm and no rain there. I’m staying 5 miles away and it’s pouring down.”
Norman failed to follow up his stirring performance last year, when he was 18 holes away from becoming the oldest major champion. He looked every bit his age (54), struggling to a 77 that left him unlikely to make the cut.
Fully recovered from knee surgery, Woods was heavily favored to capture his 15th major championship, even though Padraig Harrington could become the first golfer in more than 50 years to win the claret jug three years in a row.
Woods was a 2-1 favorite – no one else was better than Sergio Garcia at 15-1 – and the world’s No. 1 player didn’t even have to contend with longtime rival Phil Mickelson, who missed the Open for the first time since 1993 to deal with more important matters. His wife and his mother were both recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Harrington, playing late in the day, hopes to become the first player since Peter Thomson in 1954-56 to win the Open three years in a row.