Tom Watson, citing strategy and 'spirits,' continues amazing run at British Open

Tom Watson, citing strategy and ‘spirits,’ continues amazing run at British Open

Tom Watson made four bogeys and three birdies on Saturday.
Robert Beck/SI

TURNBERRY, Scotland — Tom Watson has said "the spirits" seem to be on his side, but the first three rounds of the 138th British Open at Turnberry have resembled not so much "{C}Golf in the Kingdom{C}" as "{C}Cocoon{C}."

When he hasn't been busy taking what little the course offers — never more, never forcing the issue — Watson, 59, has continued to play like a man half his age. On Saturday, he birdied two of the last three holes for a one-over 71.

At four under for the tournament, the 1,374th man in the World Ranking, who had his left hip replaced last fall, will take a one-shot lead over Mathew Goggin (69) and Ross Fisher (70) into the final round Sunday.

"For some reason today I just didn't feel nervous out there," said Watson, who won the 1977 British Open and 2003 Senior British Open at Turnberry. "I guess serene is the right word for it. Even though I messed up a couple times, I didn't let that bother me."

Lee Westwood (70) and Retief Goosen (71) were two shots back at two under, while Stewart Cink (71) and Jim Furyk (70) were at one under.

But all eyes were on the five-time Open champion Watson, who on Sunday will try to become the oldest player to win a major — by 11 years.

"He said to me earlier this week, and I'm sure he's said it publicly, too, that he wanted to win this championship so he can keep playing it," said Justin Rose, who was two over after shooting 71. "The greatest links player of all time deserves to play the Open Championship for as long as he wants, in my opinion." (Past champions are exempt until they turn 61.)

"If I don't win," Rose added, "I'll certainly be rooting for Tom Watson."

Watson's studied, sensible approach continued to serve him well while others around him unraveled. But he showed flashes of good old-fashioned brawn, as well.

Earlier this week he quipped that he never knows how his old bones will feel when he rolls out of bed in the morning, but he reached the green at the par-5 seventh hole in two and birdied to get back to even par for the day, five under for the tournament.

After slipping with bogeys on 9, 12 and 15, he birdied the par-4 16th and reached 17, the course's other par 5, in two shots as well. He barely missed his eagle putt before tapping in for birdie to get to four under.

It was at this point that millions of viewers all had the same absurdly fanciful thought at exactly the same time: What if he actually wins?

Julius Boros was the oldest to win a major, at the 1968 PGA Championship, but he was only 48.

Sam Snead was the oldest to win a PGA Tour-sanctioned event (the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open), but he was 52.

Goggin, who will join Watson in the last pairing Sunday, recalled admiring Watson's skills vis-a-vis his age the last time the two played together. That was in 2003, in the third round of the Open at St. George's.

"It was shocking just how good he was," Goggin said after shooting one of only five sub-par scores Saturday. "It was ridiculous. I'm thinking, he's getting on in years and not playing so much, and he's just smashing it around this golf course."

On Saturday, many players managed to move up simply by standing still. While Westwood likened Turnberry to "a game of chess," this board was laden with joy buzzers that sent player plummeting.

When Bryce Molder signed for his three-under-par 67, the best round of the day, he was even par for the tournament, good enough for the bottom rung of the large, 20-name leaderboard in the pressroom.

But his name kept rising all afternoon, as if an unseen force were sneaking helium into the "o" in Molder. By the end of the day, he was tied for eighth place, just four off the lead.

A total of 21 players were under par as they began the third round. By the end of the day, only seven men were in red numbers.

"I suppose it started well and faded out rapidly," Padraig Harrington said after shooting himself out of the tournament with a 76.

Plenty of players could relate.

Steve Marino (76, one over), the co-leader to start the day, doubled the fifth and 16th holes and tripled the 15th. Kenichi Kuboya (75, two over) bogeyed the eighth and doubled the ninth to fall down the board.

In a departure from his usual strategy, Watson said after his round that he decided to play his last 36 holes here with a game plan. He had a number of birdies in mind, a number of bogeys, and on Saturday he hit his numbers.

But Watson credited more than strategy for his success. After he hit his approach shot on the 18th green, he looked at his caddie, Neil Oxman, and thought of his former caddie, the late Bruce Edwards. Watson recalled the moment during his press conference Saturday evening.

"Bruce is with us today," Watson said.

"Don't make me cry," Oxman replied.

It was no use. Both men were overwhelmed. "He started crying and I started crying," Watson said.

Sunday's final pairing figures to be a study in opposites, the relatively inexperienced Goggin, whose last victory came at the 1999 Nike Omaha Classic, and the well-worn, misty-eyed Watson.

"It ended on a real good note again," Watson said of his back-nine 35, which was highlighted by a 40-foot birdie putt on 16. The stroke looked like an instant replay of the bombs he made Friday.

If Sunday ends well, too, Watson won't be the only one believing in fate.

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