SANDWICH, England – In a windy Tuesday practice round, Tom Watson couldn’t reach some of the fairways with his drives. He figures his discouraging score was in the mid-80s. Just six weeks shy of age 62, the five-time British Open champion wasn’t figuring on making us dream the impossible yet again.
“The mental condition is not good after that,” he said.
Yet, there was Watson on Saturday, in high wind and hard rain, prompting observers to marvel once more. Driving poorly but putting beautifully, he pieced together a 2-over-par 72. It tied for the best round of the day among the first 40 starters and was about five strokes better than the average.
Finishing a few minutes before the final twosome teed off at Royal St. George’s, Watson walked off with a 4-over total, eight off the lead and tied for 35th at the time. Considering players were backing up at fast speeds in the miserable conditions, Watson got to thinking maybe he could contend on Sunday.
“We’ll have to see where the leaders are,” said Watson, who led the 2009 Open at Turnberry after 71 holes before bogeying the last and losing a playoff to Stewart Cink. “If the wind and rain continue, they’ll have the same difficulties I had.”
As it happened, the rain stopped and the wind eased a few minutes after Watson finished – a good break for the leaders but not for those who had endured some of the worst weather many had ever played in. Once Watson got dry, suddenly players started making some birdies, seemingly dousing thoughts of more Sunday glory from Old Tom.
By contrast, Watson said he and other morning starters played through some “five-club” wind Saturday. But he has seen more unfavorable conditions in this ancient tournament – the first round in 1980 and the third in 2002, both at Muirfield. Watson lapped the field with an opening 68 en route to winning in ’80.
Then he was establishing himself as one of the best bad-weather players. Now he’s in Sam Snead’s league as player around 60 or older.
Watson said he actually enjoyed playing in the kind of mess Saturday’s sky brought. Others were drenched; he was smiling.
“The challenge of dealing with conditions and a course like this, it’s fun,” he said.
When chasing leaders over the years, Watson often has expressed his desire for the wind to blow if not rain to fall. The worse the better. He figured he had an edge in monsoons. And his thinking hasn’t changed.
“I kind of liked that (Saturday) forecast that it was going to be nasty – or dastardly as (announcer) Peter Alliss would say,” Watson said, smiling. “It would be nice to have some wind tomorrow, but let’s do without the rain.”
Watson agrees with the adage, “Swing with ease in the breeze.” He showed for the countless time that it works.
“I see a lot of young guys hitting the ball too hard in the wind,” he said. “You can flight it hitting it easy. In my case, I can’t hit it hard. I’m 61 years old.”
People, of course, marvel at what he has accomplished at such an advanced age. But Watson seems less amazed.
“This is what I’m here to do,” he said. “It takes some guile and experience to play in this. It takes some luck. It tests your wits. You’ve got to manage holes well. The bounce of the ball is so important to judge. You have to study it and get good at it. It’s about hitting the ball the right distance.”
Coming up with the right calculation isn’t always easy. Watson faced a 230-yard shot with a 30 mph wind at his back Saturday, and he guessed right with a 4-iron. The day before, his playing competitor, Henrik Stenson, guessed right with an 8-iron from 234 yards.
That kind of golf requires fight as well as math. Man vs. course. Man vs. elements. To hear Watson, think boxing ring.
“I beat the course a few times today,” he said, “but it got its punches in.”