What keeps a legend such as Tom Watson grinding away at age 65 when he could take his boatload of trophies and sail off into the sunset as one of the greatest golfers ever?
The same thing that keeps golfers everywhere going.
“The illusion that I can still do it,” he said.
The reality is, Watson remained atop the leaderboard through two rounds at the U.S. Senior Open after a 1-under-par 69 on Friday. But he’s not alone. Jeff Maggert made five birdies in a row midway through his round of 65 and Peter Fowler needed only 26 putts in a 66 to tie Watson at 5-under 135 on another steamy day at Del Paso Country Club.
Nineteen players, including Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and Sacramento’s Kevin Sutherland, are within three shots of a lead that likely will be gone by the time the trio of leaders tee off Saturday.
Watson said testing himself under pressure still drives him and that he feels nerves just like everyone else. He’ll keep playing, he said, until he can’t hit good shots to justify the pursuit.
“I don’t have the tools in the tool box I used to have … so it’s getting more and more difficult for me to compete,” he said, “but I still feel as if I can somehow get it done.”
Watson had the lead to himself until hitting a 5-iron fat on his approach shot to the 18th green. The ball barely cleared Chicken Ranch Slough, but he was unable get up-and-down from the high grass on the slope in front of the green.
Poor long-iron play is a problem, he said.
“I’m doing two things very well. I’m driving the ball well, and I’m putting the ball well,” Watson said. “The short-iron game is good, but the other part of the game, those tools are missing.”
Maggert, 51, was 2 over for the day and championship after five holes Friday. And in a foul mood on a day that began in the cooler morning conditions and with high expectations.
Then he birdied Nos. 15, 16, 17, 18 and 1 in succession. The streak included Del Paso’s tough closing holes and is the best on the Champions Tour this season.
“In the stretch of about an hour, I went from having a pretty bad attitude to a pretty good attitude,” he said. “I just kind of gutted it out after that.”
Watson is among the game’s best ever. Maggert was a perennial contender in U.S. Opens during his PGA Tour career with seven top-10 finishes in the sport’s most demanding event.
Fowler, a 56-year-old Australian who lives in New Zealand, is the wild card who brings the international flavor.
The longtime European Tour player and one-time winner has been a standout on the European Senior Tour since leading its Order of Merit in 2011. He won the Acorn Jersey Open and Handa PGA Seniors this year on the Euro Tour but has been unable to crack the Champions Tour.
He has a new putter that he really likes.
“Best I’ve putted in 20 years,” the imposing 6-foot-4, 200-pounder said of his recent streak of success.
“I’ve got a good feel for the speed of the greens, and I like the way the greens are rolling,” he said of this week at Del Paso. “Today, I just got in the zone.”
Sutherland, 50, took the lead alone at 5 under at high noon with a birdie at No. 7 following a birdie at No. 6. Then he made a double bogey on the beastly eighth hole (his 17th), going from rough to bunker to back fringe and finished with 69 to trail the leaders by two shots.
“It shows what can happen if you just get a little out of position,” he said. “That’s what this course is doing right now. That’s why the scores are what they are.”
It was great day, nonetheless, he said.
“I just really enjoyed the crowd and the energy they brought,” Sutherland said. “It’s just an amazing feeling to play in front of your home crowd. I’ve never had that happen before, and I can see why sports teams love to play at home.”