Watson still leads the Open

Published 12:33 am Sunday, July 19, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland — Tom Watson looked around at the amazing scene Saturday, his eyes tearing up a bit as all the Scottish fans surrounding the 18th green toasted one of golf’s greatest champions.

He might just have another title in him — this one for the ages.

In a repeat of the British Open’s throwback theme, Watson shot a 1-over 71 that kept the 59-year-old out front heading to the final round at blustery Turnberry, where the scores kept going up but the ol’ guy never faltered.

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Three years shy of qualifying for Social Security and playing on a surgically replaced left hip that’s less than a year old, Watson showed the kids how it’s done. He pulled off several brilliant par saves, played it safe when he needed to and shook off a stretch of bogeys that briefly cost him the lead.

‘‘That’s been the game plan,’’ Watson said. ‘‘I’m pretty close to it.’’

At the end, pure magic for the second day in a row.

Watson followed Friday’s 75-birdie putt at No. 16 by curling one in from 30 feet away at the same hole, pulling even with Australia’s Mathew Goggin and England’s Ross Fisher.

‘‘The putt I made at 16, I was about ready to make all day,’’ Watson said. ‘‘When I hit it I said, ’I’ve got it right on the line I want. Let’s see if it breaks.’’’

It did. The place went nuts.

On to the par-5 17th, where a fortuitous kick off a mound in front of the green sent Watson’s ball rolling right up above the flag on the second shot. The eagle putt came up inches short — wouldn’t that have been something? — but he tapped in for another birdie that gave him sole possession of the lead.

When Watson stepped to the 18th tee, all he wanted to do was ensure the lead was his going into Sunday. An iron to start, an approach shot that stayed well clear of all the trouble on the left, a long putt right up next to the cup and a final tap-in for a 4-under 206.

Goggin, a 35-year-old journeyman on the PGA Tour, shot 69 for one of only five rounds in the red. Fisher shot 70 and only hopes that his first child holds off for another day. His wife is expecting, and Fisher said he’ll leave the tournament if he gets a text saying she’s about to deliver — even if he’s leading the Open.

‘‘I won’t be here,’’ Fisher vowed. ‘‘I’ll be with her, because it’s something that I definitely don’t want to miss. It would be a shame, but I guess we’ll just have to cross that bridge if we come to it.’’

Fisher and the scruffy Goggin will have their fans, but most everyone figures to be cheering for Watson, a five-time Open champion who becomes the second straight 50-something golfer to hold its 54-hole lead.

Last year, it was Greg Norman — a relative spring chicken at 53 — who found himself 18 holes away from becoming the oldest major champion in golf history.

Norman faded at the end.

Now it’s Watson’s turn to pursue history. Julius Boros was 48 when he captured the 1968 PGA Championship, and no one older has ever captured one of the golf’s Grand Slam events.

Watson started the day tied with unheralded American Steve Marino, who was contending at a major for the first time and had the wildest ride of the day.

Marino lost five strokes in the first five holes, making three straight bogeys and a double bogey. A tap-in for eagle at No. 7 appeared to settle him down, and a birdie four holes later got him within a stroke of Watson.

But Marino missed a short putt at 12 to take bogey, then had all sorts of problems when his tee shot at the par-3 15th plugged into the side of a hill. He was forced to declare the ball unplayable, and hit an impossible wedge from an adjoining fairway before settling for triple bogey. A double bogey followed at 16, but Marino kept himself on the fringe of contention with a birdie-birdie finish for 76 — five strokes behind Watson.

The improbable leader has a lot of big names chasing him. Lee Westwood and Retief Goosen were two strokes back at 208, with Jim Furyk and Stewart Cink another stroke back. Goosen and Furyk have won the U.S. Open, while Westwood and Cink have contended in major championships.

Par was a good score on Saturday. A stiff breeze off the Irish Sea whipped across the course, toughening things up considerably on the sort of warm, sunny day that was probably the reason someone dubbed this ‘‘the sunshine coast of Scotland.’’

The weather surely brought back memories for Watson, who defeated Jack Nicklaus in the epic ‘‘Duel in the Sun’’ in 1977, when the Open first came to Turnberry. Watson also won golf’s oldest championship in 1975, ’80, ’82 and ’83 — providing the bulk of his eight major titles.

Now he’s making a run at an improbable ninth major — and a sixth Open title that would tie him with Harry Vardon for most ever.

Mark Calcavecchia, who won the Open 20 years ago right up the road at Troon, also had a shot at becoming the oldest major winner. The 49-year-old American began one stroke back, but a double bogey and three bogeys over the final six holes ruined his hopes.

He’s seven shots off the lead after a 77.

Padraig Harrington’s hopes for a third straight Open title faded with a 76. The Irishman had hoped to make a run at becoming the first player since Peter Thomson in 1954-56 to win the claret jug three years in a row.

But Harrington was never in serious contention after an opening 69, and a trio of three-putt holes ruined any chances of making a weekend run. He was 9 over at 219.

‘‘It wasn’t my day,’’ Harrington said. ‘‘I’m happy with my ball striking. Not so happy with my mental side of the game. I always play well when I’m up on working on the mental side of the game, and that needs to be tidied up.’’

At least Harrington made it to the weekend.

Tiger Woods, a three-time Open champion and the overwhelming favorite, failed to make the cut — only the second time that’s happened in a major since he turned pro. There were extenuating circumstances the last time, when he played the 2006 U.S. Open shortly after the death of his father.

Watson was asked if it helped not having Woods in his rearview mirror heading to Sunday.

‘‘I don’t ever get to play Tiger,’’ Watson, who usually plays on the Champions Tour, said with a grin. ‘‘So I don’t give a damn about Tiger.’’