There’s not a lot Tom Watson hasn’t accomplished in his storied golf career. So when he gets a chance to do something he hasn’t done, he gets a little excited.
Watson, 65, had a putt to shoot his age in a U.S. Senior Open on Thursday.
“Man, did I want to make that putt,” he said. “I was grinding on that putt more than any putt in a long time.”
He didn’t make the 40-footer, but the ensuing tap-in gave Watson a 4-under-par 66 and a one-stroke lead at Del Paso Country Club.
It was a popular result for the eight-time PGA Tour and six-time Champions Tour major winner. Watson’s grouping had the biggest following among the morning starters – before the heat elevated to scorching and the already-tough conditions became more daunting.
Six of the top seven on the leaderboard started in the morning wave.
Watson hasn’t won since 2011, but it was hard to miss the glimmer in his eye and bounce in his step after his round. Allen Doyle is the oldest winner of the Senior Open, 13 days shy of his 58th birthday in 2006. Watson wasn’t talking victory, but he wasn’t discounting it, either.
A double bogey on the difficult 16th hole, his seventh, dropped him to even par. But he got things going in the right direction again with a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 2. He drained a 40-footer earlier in the round.
The putter, a strength for much of his career, has held Watson back as he’s gotten older. He said he heeded some good advice about a month ago that has him rolling the ball well. An adjustment in his setup is keeping his hands out of the stroke, and he’s keeping the angle of his left elbow consistent.
The source of the advice? Himself.
“Somebody wrote a book about getting the ball up-and-down … in about 1980, 1982,” Watson said. “It was me. I went back to an old tip that I wrote in that book.”
Sacramento’s Kevin Sutherland, attracting the majority of the hardy souls who stuck it out into the late afternoon, had a three-birdie, one-bogey 68 to put him a six-way tie for eighth with, among others, defending champion Colin Montgomerie.
“The way the crowd treated me on the first tee was amazing, and I kind of – emotional might not be the right word, but it was a little bit, wow, that was pretty amazing,” he said.
Sutherland birdied the first hole and got another earful.
“Early on, I was pretty nervous,” he said. “I would say about the first three holes. Then I kind of got into playing golf. I felt like the rest of the day, I could have been anywhere.”
The course played little like the one he’s used to as a member, Sutherland said.
“The golf course played so different than I’ve ever seen it play,” he said. “I was hitting drives in places that I’ve never been. The through lines and stuff were a little bit foreign to me on some of the par 4s.”
Allen, who grew up in the Bay Area, was winning tournaments such as the Hangtown Open at Cold Springs Country Club in Placerville in the early 1980s when Watson was the No. 1-ranked player in the world. The winner of that event was hung in effigy.
Allen missed his only fairway on No. 8 (his 17th hole) by inches and that led to a double bogey, or he might have been tied with Watson.
“I played beautifully all day,” he said.
Allen, one of the most consistent players on the Champions Tour for years, has come a long way since the Hangtown Open. Watson is in another league, though.
“It’s always great to see these USGA champions,” Allen said. “He’s our biggest draw, he and Fred Couples. We cherish him being out here, and to see him play great, it’s wonderful. It shows these great old champs are great old champs for a reason.”
Tees were moved up on several holes, including Nos. 3, 15, 16 and 17. The tees were back on Nos. 9 and 10, short par-4s that could tempt players to try to drive the greens if they are moved up – today, hopefully.
Twenty three players broke par and 15 failed to break 80.