U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Watson Headlines All-Kansas Pairing in Third Round June 29, 2019 | SOUTH BEND, IND. By Greg Midland, USGA

At age 69, Tom Watson continues to be a big draw – and a contender – in the U.S. Senior Open. (USGA/Michael Reaves)

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June has been a good month for players who hail from Kansas. Two weeks ago, Gary Woodland raised his arms in triumph on the iconic 18th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links as he holed a 30-foot birdie putt to seal his three-stroke win in the U.S. Open. It was a life-changing victory for Woodland, who grew up in the state capital of Topeka.

This year’s U.S. Open also provided the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of another Kansan, Tom Watson, whose famous chip-in on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach in 1982 catapulted him to a U.S. Open victory over Jack Nicklaus.

“It was delightful to be there with 32 out of 36 living U.S. Open champions,” said Watson this week about the chance to reunite at Pebble Beach. “We were there at the Beach Club looking right out over the 17th green, and Jack and I were co-hosting, and when I got up to speak, I said, Jack, I'm sorry to do this, but just look over my shoulder here.”

As the audience chuckled, Watson countered with his signature, gap-toothed smile.

Here at the Warren Course at Notre Dame for the 40th U.S. Senior Open, two players from Kansas have made waves. A little over two months shy of his 70th birthday, Watson, of Bucyrus, shot or bettered his age in the first two rounds (69-68) and is tied for 16th. He will tee off in Saturday’s third round at 1:35 p.m. EDT with a fellow Kansas resident, 55-year-old Woody Austin, of Derby. While they sit 11 strokes behind leader Steve Stricker, the duo will no doubt have a sense of Sunflower State pride as their names and hometowns are announced.

For Watson, the U.S. Senior Open is marked by both disappointment and accomplishment. Surprisingly, he has never won the championship – he has finished second three times, including a playoff loss to Don Pooley in 2002 – but he’s now made the cut in all 17 starts. Even more than his place on the leader board, his presence is significant. Watson’s swing looks much the same as it did during his heyday, and he remains a fan favorite, especially for those old enough to remember his eight major-championship victories in a span of eight years, from 1975 to 1983. Ten years ago at the age of 59, Watson nearly won his sixth Open Championship at Turnberry, losing a three-hole aggregate playoff to Stewart Cink.

Watson probably doesn’t have the firepower to catch either of the sizzling Wisconsin natives, Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly, who sit 1-2 atop the leader board. But that is beside the point. The fact that he continues to grind and compete at age 69 is worthy of admiration, particularly because no one knows how much longer he’s going to compete – including Watson.

“My short iron game is a little sketchy, but I hit some decent shots, enough decent shots today to kind of stay within striking distance,” said Watson on Friday. “I wanted to be here on the weekend again. At my age, you never know how many more USGA championships you're going to play in.”

Tens of thousands of fans are expected to watch Watson compete in person this weekend in South Bend. For them, it’s a chance to relish the sight of one of the all-time greats, whose passion for the chase of another title is equaled only by his impact on the game.

Greg Midland is the director of content at the USGA. Email him at gmidland@usga.org.

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