SANDWICH, England – For the 24th time in his career, Tom Watson will play on the weekend in an Open Championship.
Dating back to 1975 when Watson won in an 18-hole playoff over Jack Newton, the Kansas City native has been making the annual trek to play links golf every year except 2007.
When Watson almost won in 2009 at Turnberry, his story resonated on both sides of the Atlantic. Watson is playing well again at Royal St. George’s. He’ll easily make the cut after Friday’s 70, which included an ace on the par-3 sixth. He’s at 2-over 142 through 36 holes.
“I guess I refuse to be a ceremonial player, and until that time comes, then I’ll hang them up” Watson said. “But I still am disappointed about the three three putts I had today.”
Like in 2009, Watson is shepherding a young player around an Open course. In 2009, Watson played with Matteo Manassero. He played the first two rounds this week with Tom Lewis, the 20-year-old amateur that tied the 18-hole lead.
“He played a wonderful game yesterday,” Watson said. “He hardly missed a shot yesterday. Today he missed a few shots. Got the ball going off line a little bit a few times today.”
Watson proved Friday he can still compete alongside players young enough to be his grandsons. His 70 was four shots better than Lewis’ 74.
“How old do I feel? I feel in pretty good shape,” Watson said after making his first Open cut since that magical week in 2009. “I’m not too bad. But when you see these kids and the speed with which they hit the golf ball with their driver, it’s just a different sound. Their sound is a whoosh and mine is a thud. There’s a difference. But the thud works every time.”
Watson will put his thud on display this weekend hoping to at least post another top-10. It would be the 11th in his Open career, and if he found a way to win, it would be his sixth Open title.
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Fresh start: Phil Mickelson’s attempt to forget his British Open past could make this a week for him to remember.
Mickelson shot 69 Friday to get into contention at Royal St. George’s. He’s at 1-under 139 through the first 36 holes of the Open Championship. Mickelson has just one top-10 in 17 Open appearances; he’s finished in the top 25 just five times.
“I just wanted to start fresh because I’ve loved links golf,” Mickelson said about his mindset this week. “I just had to really enjoy the challenge more.”
His 139 here ties his second-best opening 36 holes at an Open. He finished 11th at the 2000 Open after opening with 72-66 at St. Andrews. His best Open finish – third at Troon in 2004 – came after he shot 73-66 for the first two rounds.
Mickelson has successfully employed a low, running tee shot – he’d never call it a “stinger,” for that name was trademarked by Tiger Woods – to navigate his way around Royal St. George’s. Mickelson said that shot was key to his success at the ’04 Open. He carries that low tee shot only about 200 yards with his driver.
“I get the ball on the ground quicker and I don’t have that big miss because it’s not in the air as long,” Mickelson said. “We don’t really have a need for that shot over in the States. It’s fun to learn how to hit those effectively.”
Headed home? Two of the United Kingdom’s leading hopes likely are headed home after two rounds at Royal St. George’s.
Graeme McDowell was in contention after Thursday’s 68 – which included a back-nine 31 – but shot 77 in the second round. Lee Westwood, the world No. 2, shot 71-73.
“I couldn’t really put my finger on anything that was particularly bad today,” McDowell said. “I just drove it average, iron play was average, everything was average. My attitude has been pretty average the last two days. Just not having a lot of belief in myself.”
McDowell hasn’t had a top-10 in a stroke-play event since the Honda Classic in March. He’s gotten himself in contention in recent events, only to falter. He held the 54-hole lead at The Players before shooting a final-round 79. A third-round 81 dropped him out of contention at the Wales Open. He had the second-round lead at last week’s Scottish Open before a final-round 74 dropped him to 42nd in the 54-hole event.
“I was frustrated and disappointed. I guess those are the two words that are coming into my game really quickly. I don’t have any patience in myself. Maybe I expect too much of myself.”
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington also is likely to miss the cut after shooting 73-71. In three Opens since Harrington’s victories in 2008 and 2009, he has missed two cuts and finished 65th.
Campbell in contention: Not much in Chad Campbell’s recent form, or Open record, would signify Campbell was due for success at Royal St. George’s. But there he is, 3-under par for 36 holes after rounds of 69-68.
Campbell, who had to qualify for the Open, doesn’t have a top 10 this PGA Tour season, and has finished in the top 25 just three times in 20 starts. He’s missed the cut in four of six starts at the Open, though his best showing in this tournament (15th) came at Royal St. George’s in 2003.
“I feel pretty comfortable around it,” Campbell said. “Some of the other courses in the past I haven’t gotten real comfortable on where to go.”
Campbell has contended in past major championships, finishing second at the 2003 PGA Championship, third at the 2006 Masters and second at Augusta in 2010.
Campbell is comfortable playing in the wind after growing up in windy West Texas.
“A bit like home? Yeah, it is,” the four-time PGA Tour winner said. “In West Texas we get a lot of wind, and the terrain is not really similar, but I can definitely relate.”
And after years of mediocrity at the Open Championship, he’s shown he can contend on the links.
Great experience: Bryden MacPherson describes his metamorphosis best: “I remember six months ago, I was a struggling college player. I couldn’t quite find my game. Now I’m playing alongside these guys.”
“These guys” were two of the world’s best players – Matt Kuchar and Padraig Harrington. MacPherson’s life changed June 18 when he won the British Amateur, earning spots at the Open Championship and 2012 Masters.
Just a few weeks ago, he was was playing the four-man for the University of Georgia, which finished runner-up to Augusta State at the NCAA Championship.
At Royal St. George’s, MacPherson tied Harrington at 4-over 144 and beat Kuchar by seven strokes.
“To play alongside them was an honor,” MacPherson said.
MacPherson bogeyed his final two holes Friday to shoot 73 and is likely to miss the cut by a stroke. He three-putted No. 17 from about 80 feet, then missed a 15-foot par putt after leaving his chip short.
“I was happy with how I played today,” MacPherson said. “I didn’t feel like I got that nervous the last couple holes. I guess that’s what it looks like on TV, but I just played a couple bad holes.”
Hard to explain: There are many mysteries of life. Matt Kuchar’s record on links land pales in comparison to the Bigfoot or the Bermuda Triangle, but is befuddling nonetheless.
Kuchar has become one of the PGA Tour’s most consistent performers in recent years. He’s been consistently bad at the Open Championship, though. His missed cut at Royal St. George’s was his first in 16 PGA Tour starts year. In fact, it was just the fourth time he was outside the top 25 in 2011.
Kuchar shot 74-77 and was around 150th place when he finished Friday’s second round. Kuchar has made the cut just once in seven starts at the Open Championship (27th, 2010 Open). He’s a combined 48-over par in 16 career Open rounds, an average of 3-over par per round.
“I really enjoy links golf,” Kuchar said. “I don’t know that links golf shares the same enjoyment for me. I always have a good time. I enjoy the game. I think my game’s pretty well-suited for links golf, I’ve just never performed that well here. I wish I had an idea, but I don’t.”
Oddly, Kuchar finished 10th at last week’s Scottish Open, which was conducted on the links of Castle Stuart.
Shorter is better: It pays to be a shorter hitter at Royal St. George’s. At least, that’s Tom Lehman’s theory on why, at the age of 52, he has pushed his way onto the leaderboard.
Lehman, playing in his 18th Open Championship and for the third time here in Sandwich, suggests that the flatter areas of the golf course are where shorter hitters like him hit it.
“Not being able to carry it so far is a benefit here,” Lehman said.
Certainly, it’s a valid point, because longer hitters seem to find those parts of the fairway where wild bounces can take you into danger. That sort of trouble just hasn’t been present for two days as Lehman made just one bogey in a round of 3-under 67. It got him halfway home in 2 under 138, meaning he’s made the cut in five straight Open Championships and in each visit to Royal St. George’s.
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Rough start: It was a different story for one of Lehman’s fellow Champions Tour colleagues. Mark Calcavecchia, one day after shooting 69, was no match for Royal St. George’s in Round 2. With a double-bogey, bogey and triple-bogey in his first four holes, Calcavecchia set in motion a 79 that sent him into a free fall. From T-18, he fell 100 spots when he signed his card and left Sandwich, headed, most likely toward London where next week he’ll tee it up in the Senior British Open.
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Backing out: When Retief Goosen shot 76, it matched his worst opening score in 17 Open Championships. Considering that Carnoustie and its infamous set-up in 1999 is where he also shot 76, one could suggest that Thursday at Royal St. George’s was Goosen’s worst start in an Open Championship.
Apparently it also was the product of health woes. Goosen withdrew before the start of Round 2, citing back problems.