Watson turns back clock at British

July 16, 1994|By Larry Dorman | Larry Dorman,New York Times News Service

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- There was a special British Open moment yesterday, the sort that Tom Watson has provided so many times through the years. The wind was blowing, and Watson was glowing, white hot against the Scottish chill, walking from the 10th green to the 11th tee.

He was tied for the lead, having just birdied the hole with a 13-footer, a downhill slider. Some Scottish fans were leaning over the metal barriers, screaming his name and trying to touch him, and Watson smiled at them as he walked up the steep incline to the tee.

"I've got those bookies quivering now, boys," he said. And when they heard him say that, the fans went even wilder, bathing him in cheers that drowned out the waves pounding the beach below.

Yes, the bookmakers who listed Watson at 66-1 before the British Open began are quivering. He's down to 3-1 now. And he has the world wondering and the rest of the golfers in the field following. Playing golf by feel, memory and inspiration, Watson shot a round of 65 yesterday that was a special reminder of what was and a hint of what might yet be.

His total of 7-under-par 133 gives Watson a one-stroke lead over Jesper Parnevik, who shot 66, and Brad Faxon, who shot 65. Two strokes back at 135 is Nick Price. First-round leader Greg Turner slipped to a 71, but still is in contention at 136, along with Frank Nobilo, David Edwards and Jonathan Lomas.

At the halfway point of the 123rd Open Championship, Watson, 44, is playing as well as he did here 17 years ago, when he won the Open by one stroke over Jack Nicklaus. He is, in fact, playing as well as he ever has. He hit just two wayward shots yesterday and missed just one short putt, a two-footer at the 13th hole.

"Not bad for a 44-year-old has-been," Watson said with a laugh after a round in which he birdied seven holes and bogeyed two. "No. I'm not a has-been. I feel like I can win. As I said earlier this year, it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when."

If the "when" is to be now, here on this course that sits along the craggy Ayshire coastline of western Scotland, then it will be one of sports' best-timed and most popular revivals. Watson has not won since 1987. He has not won a major championship since the 1983 British Open, which was his fifth British Open. He is this country's favorite adopted laddie.

And he was stirring up the echoes yesterday. At the par-5 seventh hole, already one under after two birdies and a bogey, he hit a driver from the fairway into the teeth of the wind that left him two putts for birdie. At the eighth, he hit a 3-iron, from a hanging lie in the rough, 8 feet from the hole for birdie.

"My feel was right on," said Watson. "I hit a lot of good shots, a lot of good links shots. I feel good about the way I'm playing."

As well as Watson is playing, the difficult part has only just begun. At his back beat the feet of younger and stronger men.

Parnevik, a 29-year-old Swede, might not look the part, but don't be fooled. His quirky flipped-up bill on the front of his hat might make him look like a cyclist who made a wrong turn in the Tour de France, but he is a strong player.

He finished third last week at the Bell's Scottish Open, he lost a seven-hole playoff to Seve Ballesteros three years ago at Majorca and he shot three rounds in the 60s in his British Open debut last year.

Price's prowess is plain. He has won three times this year on the

PGA Tour, including two weeks ago at the Motorola Western Open. His round of 66 included a bogey at the last hole, and he is striking the ball as well as anyone in the world.

Faxon? His ball-striking has recently started to approach his skill with the putter, and he missed just two fairways and three greens yesterday, remarkable given the gusty, gloomy conditions.

Watson will have others to contend with. Lurking at 138, %J two-under, are Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Greg Norman. Two under par is exactly the score Watson and Nicklaus had after two rounds in 1977 before staging their memorable head-to-head duel in the sun.

Watson has made other threatening noises lately. He led the U.S. Open at Oakmont after the first round this year and wound up tied for sixth. He should have won at Pebble Beach, but his putter deserted him at crucial junctures, just as it has at a series of other majors and minors through the past four or five years. It is an unhappy litany. The British and U.S. Opens in 1987. The Open at Troon in 1989, where he was two back after two rounds. The 1990 Masters. The list goes on.

And so does Watson. He is hoping that the putting tip he received from Lee Trevino when the two were in Ireland last week -- keeping his hands ahead of the ball throughout the stroke -- will carry him through. It just might. He made two big par-saving putts down the stretch, a 12-footer at the 14th and a 6-footer at the 15th.

"Who knows what the weekend will bring," Watson said. "I'm just hoping that on Sunday, I'm there, hoisting the cup."

John Daly, meanwhile, continued his strange antics, reaching 5-under-par and pulling to within a shot of the lead after nine holes only to pull a couple of his patented oddities. Daly drove his ball in the general direction of the Isle of Arran at the 10th hole, losing the ball and making a triple-bogey.

He followed that with a four-putt double bogey at the 11th hole. At the 14th, he whistled a shot from the rough just a few yards over the heads of the gallery. Then he stormed off without speaking to reporters after his 72 left him at even par.

"The whole day was very disappointing," he said as he jumped into a waiting courtesy car. "I'm just glad to survive. Now I've got to go home and pull the knife out of my heart."

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