TIMONIUM, Md. – If Tom Watson was looking for a sign that luck was on his side at the Senior Players Championship, he got it on the 13th hole at Baltimore Country Club.
Seeking his second birdie on what would turn out to be a bogey-free round, Watson let loose a 50-foot downhill putt.
Bottom of the cup.
“I was just trying to get close, cozy it down there, and it went in the hole,” he said. “It was a nice surprise.”
Watson shot 68 on a windy Friday for a 6-under 134 at the midway point of the fifth major on the Champions Tour. Seeking his first win of the year, Watson leads four players by two strokes.
Craig Stadler shot 65 for a 136, tied with Bob Tway (68), Jay Haas (70) and Mark Wiebe (67).
Bernhard Langer sank six birdies for a 65 to come in at 137, along with Loren Roberts (67) and John Cook (68).
Lonnie Nielsen, who started the day with a one-shot lead over Watson and Haas, was done in by a double-bogey on the 452-yard, par-4 13th hole and finished with a 73.
Watson returned to the limelight last July when he shined at the British Open, threatening to become the oldest player to win a PGA Tour major before finally falling to Stewart Cink in a playoff.
On the Champions Tour, however, the 60-year-old Watson has not finished better than fourth in nine tournaments. This week, on a very difficult course, he is playing like a man who will not be denied.
“I drove the ball very well. That makes it a lot easier when you’re driving the ball in the fairway,” he said. “The rough is not for old folks like me. It’s hard to get out of it.”
Having won dozens of tournaments and more than $22 million during his illustrious career, Watson has no need for another trophy and isn’t in it for the money. Playing against talented foes under pressure over 18 challenging holes is what keeps him going.
“My motivation is still the competition. I like the golf course here. It’s a big course; you have to hit a lot of quality shots,” Watson said. “To hit that quality shot when the chips are down, that’s what I’m out here for. Anybody can do it in a friendly match.”
Stadler rebounded from an opening 71 by sinking five birdies on the front nine. A misplaced drive into the bunker led to a bogey on the par-3 11th hole, but he rebounded with a birdie on 16.
“I was very pleased with the way I played. I putted wonderfully,” he said. “For some reason today, I kind of saw ’em good, rolled them on line and pretty much made every putt that was makable except an 8-footer on 4. It was nice for a change, very enjoyable. It makes golf fun again when you putt well.”
Stadler called the wind “pretty blustery at times,” and applauded Watson for his ability to battle through it.
“He cherishes bad conditions, the wind. It didn’t rain today, but those are what he likes,” Stadler said. “He’s obviously playing well.”
After his second straight 68, Tway said, “Today the wind was exactly the opposite of yesterday, so the golf course played entirely different. The holes that played short yesterday played long, and vice versa. But I was pleased with the way I played.”
Tway started with a bogey at No. 1, but bounced back with three straight birdies on Nos. 4-6 and nailed a 10-foot birdie putt at 9. He played the back nine at 1 over.
The last threesome Saturday will be Watson, Wiebe and, much to his delight, Tway.
“I saw that (Watson) was leading, and I was just hoping to play good enough to play with him again,” said Tway, part of a threesome with Watson in August in the JELD-WEN Tradition. “I’ve always enjoyed playing with him. He’s so good, and such a professional. You learn something.”