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Old man Watson weathers course, conditions as few can

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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SANDWICH, England -- Forget the afternoon dart competition that the British Open devolved into when the rain and winds laid down and Royal St. George's was there for the taking.

The most impressive thing that happened Saturday came in the eye of a monsoon when a 61-year-old man gave everyone another lesson in links golf.

When it comes to outwitting the field, the course and the surrounding storm, it's elementary for Tom Watson. The five-time Open champion was whistling to the tune of an outlandish 72 when the scoring average was 77 through the worst of the weather along the Kent Coast.

As his wife, Hillary, said of the senior smiling in the gloom, Watson was "loving every minute of it."

Does he possibly enjoy slogging through the 30 mph winds and sideways rain on a course that's hard enough in perfect weather?

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"I do," Watson said. "The challenge of dealing with conditions on a course like this is, you know, it's fun. This is a game, and it's fun to be able to hit a few shots that really are good."

A day after making his first career ace in the championship he has won five times, Watson was right at home when the weather switched from miserable to atrocious. While scores were ballooning all around him, he kept making putts and hitting drivers off the deck and getting up and down from all manner of places.

He'll offer tips to anyone interested in listening (and everyone should).

"There's an old saying -- swing with ease into the breeze," he said. "Well, a lot of times you can see these young kids out there trying to hit it really hard into the wind. That doesn't flight the ball very well. Hitting low stingers, things like that, you don't have to hit it that hard. You can just flight it by swinging it a little bit easier and that will take the height off the ball. In my case I can't hit it hard. I mean, I'm 61 years old. I can't swing hard, so the ball is flighted naturally."

His 72 was the low round of anyone who faced the worst of the weather and had the brave galleries offering muffled claps with their gloved hands. Louis Oosthuizen, last year's Open champion who is less than half Watson's age, marvelled all the way around while shooting his own impressive 74 in the group behind.

"At this stage you just have to laugh," said Oosthuizen. "Watching him in front, the score he shot is just amazing."

Trevor Immelman, the 2008 Masters champion who was the first player to come in after Watson with a 72, wasn't so amazed.

"It doesn't really surprise me," Immelman said. "I don't think there's any shadow of a doubt he's the best bad-weather player in the history of the game."

Substitute the words "bad weather" with "links golf" -- which some might argue are synonymous -- and Immelman is probably right. Watson displays an easy grace and uncommon guile under the toughest conditions on the toughest links the world has to offer.

Saturday's weather isn't the worst Tom Watson has seen at an Open, but it's familiar to the five-time champ. (Getty Images)  
Saturday's weather isn't the worst Tom Watson has seen at an Open, but it's familiar to the five-time champ. (Getty Images)  
When you consider that in Watson's first practice round on Tuesday he shot 84, you appreciate even more how impressive his mastery of the elements and his own limitations are. The guy hit a driver 180 yards off the deck into the wind, for goodness sake, and he was lapping all the younger and stronger guys playing around him. And he was doing it on a course that had essentially changed its very nature for the third consecutive day with the schitzophrenic weather.

Safe to say few players who made the cut were more energized by the calls for "biblical" conditions on Saturday.

"I kind of liked that ... when the weather forecast said it was going to get nasty out there -- dastardly as Peter Alliss would call it -- and it worked out well for me," said Watson.

Watson's old bones and new hip could do with a little less rain, but more wind is always welcome in his book.

"Yeah, the conditions are bothersome, but you just try to do the best you can to keep your grips dry and your wits about you and go about your business to try to make pars out there," he said.

Saturday was hardly the worst Watson has seen in all the Opens he has played since winning his debut at Carnoustie in 1975. It wasn't nearly as bad as the first round at Muirfield in 1980 when he and Lee Trevino shot 68 and led the field average by a mile.

But Watson understands as well as anyone what foul weather on a hard course can do to a golfer's psyche.

"It can tear you up and spit you out," he said. "It's done it to me. ... I've shot high scores on days like today. But today is one of those days. I'll remember this day. It was a very good day out there, especially with that putter."

Sadly, within minutes of Watson finishing his very good day, the rain stopped and the winds died down and the softened course started yielding birdies by the bushel to players with twice his current skill but half his cleverness. The leaders avoided backing up and left the old champion too far afield to have any hopes of reprising the magic that almost won him a sixth Claret Jug two years ago at Turnberry.

But for awhile, Watson's game was a beautiful sight in the midst of so much ugliness.

Not that he thought that Saturday's early gale was ugly.

"He probably had a big internal smile when he woke up today and saw this," said Bo Van Pelt.

Watson smiled once again at the thought.

"I'll never tell," he said with a wink and walked away.

Scott Michaux is the sports columnist and golf writer for the Augusta Chronicle and augusta.com.

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