TIMONIUM, Md.(AP) Tom Watson credited skillful iron play for his efficient 4-under 66 in the opening round of the Senior Players Championship.
It was his putter, however, that set the tone.
Watson saved par with an 8-footer on the first hole Thursday, then dropped in a 25-foot downhill birdie putt on No. 2. He made his only bogey on 13 and finished tied with Jay Haas in second place behind unheralded Lonnie Nielsen, who had eight birdies and three bogeys in an up-and-down 65.
Sandy Lyle shot a 67, and four golfers, including Bob Tway and Dan Forsman, were tied for fifth at 68.
Watson stepped back into prominence last July when he finished second in the British Open. That proved he still had the talent to compete with golfers half his age, but the 60-year-old still hasn’t won on the Champions Tour this season.
That could change this week at the Baltimore Country Club.
Although he missed a 3-foot birdie putt on 18 that would have put him a tie atop the leaderboard, Watson said, “It was just a good day all around. I was very happy about the way I played.”
It began on the 427-yard 1st hole.
“It’s a real tough starting hole, uphill into the wind,” he said. “Making that 8-foot putt was a real positive. Then I made a good putt on the next hole. I was just trying to get it close, and it goes in. That gets you off on exactly the right foot. It kind of opens the door.”
Birdie putts on Nos. 4, 6, 8 and 12 followed before he three-putted from the fringe on 13. But that, and his disappointing finish, didn’t spoil a wonderful day for one of the most popular players on the Tour.
“The one thing that I still do well is driving the ball,” Watson said. “I concentrated more on my iron play today, and as a result, I kept the ball out of the water and hit some decent shots.”
Nielsen birdied four of the first six holes and added birdies on Nos. 9, 12, 14 and 15. He also had bogeys on 7, 13 and 17.
“I always make a few bogeys, so three was not out of the ordinary for me. But eight birdies sure was,” he said. “I was lucky today. When I hit a good shot, I hit it in the right place. The key to the day was having so many putts up the hills, and relatively easy ones.”
It’s only the third time in 154 career starts on the Champions Tour that Nielsen has held sole possession of the lead after the first round. He won the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in late June but has not finished better than 21st in eight tournaments since.
“My putting had been off, and then of course your attitude goes right in the toilet and it’s a downhill spiral,” he said. “It’s been a couple of tough months.”
Seeing Watson and Haas on the leaderboard came as no surprise.
“I can think of better guys I’d rather have chasing me than Tom Watson and Jay Haas, that’s for sure,” Nielsen said. “But on a course like this, the cream is going to rise to the top, and we expect Tom and Jay to both play well. The tougher the course, the better the chance they’re going to be up there.”
Haas was 6-under and enjoying a bogey-free round until he hit a drive into the fairway bunker on 17 and two-putted from 30 feet. Then, on 18, he drove into the right rough and “couldn’t muscle it up” to the green, which resulted in a second straight bogey.
“I was playing pretty flawlessly up to that point,” he said. “If I’d have made my two bogeys somewhere else and birdied the last two, I’d feel a whole lot different than I do right now. I still can’t be discouraged with 66. I played really well.”