Tom Watson has looked over putts that meant more, but this one, 35 feet with a right-to-left break on the ninth green of Del Paso Country Club, meant plenty.
It was a birdie putt on Watson’s last hole in the first round of the 36th U.S. Senior Open on Thursday, a putt for a 5-under 65 to match his age and add a little more lore to a storied career.
“Man, did I want to make that putt,” Watson said. “I was grinding on that putt more than any putt in a long time. Shooting my age in a U.S. Open Championship, that would have been pretty special.”
Watson couldn’t will it in – the ball missed on the low side – but his 66 wasn’t a bad consolation prize. It gave the 1982 U.S. Open champion a one-stroke lead over six players: Michael Allen, Jeff Hart, Jimmy Carter, P.H. Horgan, Woody Austin and two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen.
“It’s important to get off to a good start and be under par,” said Janzen, 50, who missed the cut by four strokes in this past week’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. “I was playing well enough last week to make the cut. So there’s a little bit of, ‘I knew I could do better.’ So, I carry that into this week as a little motivation.”
Five golfers, including local favorite Kevin Sutherland (a Del Paso member), and defending Senior Open champion Colin Montgomerie shot 68 on a day in which the temperature reached 101.5 degrees.
“That sun got tough the last couple of hours,” said 2014 Senior Open runner-up Gene Sauers, who teed off at 1:06 p.m. PDT and was among 11 who shot 69, playing most of his round in the worst of the heat.
Watson played in the morning before the temperature reached triple-digits, but was still looking for ways to beat the weather.
“Usually in your yardage book you have a diagram that says here’s the bunker, here’s the green,” he said. “Now you have a diagram [showing], here’s the shade.”
Long known for his unflappable demeanor, Watson, who started his round on No. 10, kept his cool after hitting a 4-iron approach into the water on the 473-yard, par-4 16th hole and making a double-bogey. The eight-time major champion then played his final nine in 4-under 32 in pursuit of the most significant senior title to elude him.
After losing on the fifth playoff hole to Don Pooley at Caves Valley in the 2002 U.S. Senior Open, Watson was the runner-up to Bruce Lietzke at Inverness in 2003 and Allen Doyle at Prairie Dunes in 2006. Watson felt in his element tackling Del Paso’s traditional challenges that put a premium on accuracy and penalize errant shots.
“That’s always been the definition of the Open to me,” Watson said. “When you think about the Open, you think about gnarly, heavy rough, and that’s what we have here. More than half the time, it’s just a guess around the greens.”
Watson’s putting, sometimes problematic, perked up as well in the opening round. Although he missed a 6-footer for birdie on his first hole, he sank a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 11 and one from 50 feet on No. 2 en route to only 26 putts.
Just four years ago at the age of 61, Watson won the Senior PGA Championship, making him the oldest winner of a senior major. Two years prior to that, he nearly won his sixth British Open, losing in a playoff to Stewart Cink after bogeying the 72nd hole. Had he hung on at Turnberry, he would have been the oldest winner of a major by 11 years. Watson’s longevity isn’t lost on his younger peers.
“It’s just magical to watch, to be honest,” said Barry Lane, who opened with a 68. “He said he’s been training. Watch out, I think, at St. Andrews. You never know. He’s just unbelievable.”
But Watson wasn’t the only old-school legend defying the calendar on Thursday. As Watson was walking out of the media tent following his post-round interview, he asked a reporter, “How did Hale finish?”
Told that the 70-year-old Hale Irwin had shot his age – the 19th time he has matched or bettered it in competition – Watson gave a little fist-pump. “Great,” he said. “Us old guys have to stick together.”
It was a day neither Hall of Famer acted his age, especially the man atop the leader board. A victory this week by Watson would shatter Doyle’s U.S. Senior Open mark for oldest winner (57 years, 11 months, 14 days) and break the late Mike Fetchick’s record (63) as oldest winner of a Champions Tour event.
“We cherish him being out here and to see him play great is wonderful,” said Michael Allen. “It shows these great old champs are great old champs for a reason.”
Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.