Watson, 59, posts stunning 65 in British Open
July 16, 2009
TURNBERRY, Scotland – On the eve of the British Open, Tom Watson got a modern-day text message from Jack Nicklaus’ wife. Then it was time to turn back the clock at Turnberry.
Thirty-two years after his epic “Duel in the Sun” with the Golden Bear, Watson took advantage of pristine conditions on the very same course to shoot a stunning 5-under 65 on Thursday. He held the lead until Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez stole it away late in the day with a 64, only one shot off the record for lowest score in any major championship.
Still, it was Watson, the 59-year-old, five-time Open champion, who maintained the lead role – if only for a day.
“What a legend,” Jimenez said.
Watson had been practicing well all week, and got an extra boost a day earlier when Barbara Nicklaus sent a text wishing him good luck.
“I texted her back and said, “You know, we really miss you over here,”‘ Watson said. “And I really meant it. It’s not the same without Jack playing in the tournament.”
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Nicklaus played his final British Open at St. Andrews in 2005 and faded into retirement. But the guy who beat him at Turnberry in ’77 – with a 65 on the final day, no less – still has a few shots left.
Watson kept the ball in the fairway, rolled in five birdies and bailed himself out the few times he got into trouble, including a testy 6-footer at the final hole to preserve a bogey-free round.
“Not bad for an almost 60-year-old,” said Watson, who turns that age in September.
His score was matched by Ben Curtis, the surprise winner of the 2003 Open, and Japanese Tour regular Kenichi Kuboya, who surged into contention after most of the fans had headed for the pubs with a birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie finish.
Tiger Woods didn’t have nearly as much fun. On a day for going low along the Scottish coast – it was sunny until early evening, with little breeze off the Irish Sea – the world’s No. 1 player struggled to a 71 with one wayward shot after another. He even dunked his ball in Wilson’s Burn, which led to the last of his four bogeys at No. 16.
“I certainly made a few mistakes out there,” said Woods, facing the largest 18-hole deficit of his Open career. “Realistically, I probably should have shot about 1- or 2-under par.”
When the round ended, Woods headed back to the range to work on his swing, which looked downright ugly with his right hand flying off the club. His first signs of frustration emerged at No. 3, when he took an angry swipe and mumbled something under his breath. By the time the day was done, he had angrily tossed away his clubs several times.
Six years ago, Curtis was virtually unknown except to family and friends when he won the claret jug on his first try. He missed the cut on his next three attempts, but has finished in the top 10 at the Open the last two years. Now, he’s confident of making a run at another Open championship.
“You don’t win it once and not be able to do it again,” he said. “The last couple of years have been good for me, and this week I got off to a good start.”
Curtis overcame a pair of bogeys with an eagle at the par-5 seventh and birdies on four of his last six holes. He finished with a routine two-putt par at No. 18, walking off tied for the top spot.
Golf’s oldest major keeps bringing out the best in the old-timers. Last year, Greg Norman was 53 when he held the 54-hole lead at Birkdale, only to fade on the final day.
Jimenez is no spring chicken, either, but at age 45 he beat his previous low score in the Open by three strokes and just missed the major championship record. The ponytailed, cigar-puffing Spaniard, known as “the Mechanic,” finished with a flourish, making birdies on the final two holes – including a 66-footer from the edge of the green with his last putt of the day.
Even John Daly managed to shoot a 68, his best round since winning the claret jug at St. Andrews in 1995. Adorned in an eye-catching, lime-green outfit, he sure played much better than a year ago, when he shot an amateurish 80-89 at Birkdale.
Jimenez was encouraged from the moment he woke up.
“You look at the sea, and it looked like a pond – so nice, so calm,” he said. “You can’t ask for a better day. No wind, no nothing, and it took care of me.”
There’s still three rounds to go, and the weather isn’t like to stay this way through Sunday. Indeed, the second-round forecast called for a chance of patchy rain, with the wind gusting up to 30 mph.
Now that sounds more like a British Open.
Major championship golf is filled with opening-day leaders who fell out of contention by the weekend. Watson would be by the far the oldest Open champion, a distinction held by Old Tom Morris (now that’s an appropriate nickname), who was 46 when he won the claret jug for the final time in 1867.
Watson posted his lowest score in the tournament since a second-round 65 in 1994 – the last time it was held at Turnberry. But this isn’t the first time he’s come up with some opening-day magic since joining the senior circuit.
At the 2003 U.S. Open, Watson led after the first round at Olympia Fields with ailing Bruce Edwards on the bag. The tears flowed freely after Watson shot a 65; his longtime caddie died less than a year later from Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
This week, Watson has been reminded of a more pleasant experience – his showdown with Nicklaus when the British Open first came to historic Turnberry. Watson held on to win by a stroke on a sun-splashed day in what was essentially a match-play format over the final 18 holes.
“I don’t live in the past,” Watson 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 also 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.
With red numbers there for the taking, Americans Stewart Cink and Steve Stricker, Australians John Senden and Mathew Goggin, and Camilo Villegas of Colombia put up 66s. With a handful of players still on the course, there already were 43 scores in the 60s.
To get old-timer’s theme rolling, 49-year-old Mark Calcavecchia, the 1989 Open champion, went out in the first group of the day with his wife on the bag and shot 67.
He was matched by 52-year-old Mark O’Meara, the ’98 winner who now plays on the Champions Tour, and three-time major champion Vijay Singh, the kid of that group at 46. The group at 67 also included former Masters champion Mike Weir, two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen and down-home American Boo Weekley.
Some of the young guns struggled, most notably 24-year-old Anthony Kim. The emotional leader of America’s winning Ryder Cup team took a 9 at the second hole, hit another ball in the water and struggled with an upper-back injury, requiring treatment on the course. He finished with a 73 and will need to really to make the cut.
Don’t forget Padraig Harrington, trying to become the first player since Peter Thomson in 1954-56 to win the Open three years in a row. The Irishman quietly went about his work, tapping in for a 69 that was an improvement on his shaky play this year while he attempts to make changes in his swing.
It wasn’t all fun and games for the senior set.
Norman failed to follow up his stirring performance last year, when he was 18 holes away from becoming the oldest major champion in golf history. The Shark looked every bit his age, now 54, struggling to a 77 that left him likely to miss the cut.