- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — Day One of the 103rd U.S. Open was defined by duds, dark horses and one ageless assault.

Tom Watson, the 53-year-old legend who hasn’t contended in a major since the 1994 Open, posted a magical 65 at Olympia Fields yesterday, earning him a share of the lead with Brett Quigley, 20 years his junior.

“Who would have thought it?” chuckled Watson after equaling his lowest Open round in his 30th career start in the event. “The body was stiff. The back was sore. But the old magic was still there with the putter.”

Watson switched putters Monday at the urging of caddy Bruce Edwards, returning to the Ping Pal II model he used to torture the PGA Tour in the early 1980s. Under other circumstances, Watson might have disregarded the request.

But the 48-year-old Edwards was diagnosed with the crippling disease ALS last November. Edwards, who rode in a cart in last week’s Senior PGA Championship, was granted the right to ride this week by the USGA. But Edwards, whose speech is slightly slurred, decided to walk, preferring to spend what could be his last week at a major under the bag and walking beside his man.

“He’s an inspiration,” said Watson after both ended the round in tears. “There’s a lot of emotion there. Put yourself in Bruce’s shoes and my shoes — it’s coming down to the end. … Bruce has been with me since 1973. And as I said at his wedding in January in Hawaii, he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.

“We’re out there trying to take care of business, but he had tears in his eyes and that made me cry. It was a very special day.”

That day really started at No.12. Watson, who began on the back nine, came to the hole 1 over and immediately flipped that number into the red by holing a 6-iron for an eagle.

“That just opened up the airwaves and got the momentum flowing,” said the eight-time major champion.

Watson didn’t make another bogey, venturing further beneath par with birdies at Nos.16 and 1 and capping his day with a spectacular stretch-run salvo. At No.7, Watson left a 45-foot birdie bid hanging on the lip and was walking amiably toward a tap-in when drama intervened. Just as he reached the hole, the ball disappeared into the cup of its own accord, provoking a Watson jig and sending the enormous gallery trailing the master into ecstasy.

At No.8, he rolled home a 20-footer for birdie to match Quigley at 5 under. And at No.9, the layout’s 496-yard, par-4 signature hole, he rescued his approach from a greenside bunker with the wedge-play that made him a five-time British Open champion. The day’s most thunderous ovation erupted when Watson, fittingly finishing at twilight, holed a 6-footer for par and a share of the overnight lead.

As the performances of both Watson and Quigley proved, low scores were available on the 7,190-yard, par-70 layout — the wind was down, the greens were still relatively soft from the early week rain. And the USGA had placed the pins in difficult but not impossible positions. As a whole, the 156-man field fared extremely well. A total of 24 players bested par. And the average score (72.7) marked the lowest first-round average (relative to par) at an Open since 1993 at Baltusrol (72.3).

But most of the high-profile players on the property struggled somewhat. Defending champion Tiger Woods didn’t make a birdie all day, balancing two bogeys with an eagle at the par-5 sixth to finish at par 70.

“I fired away at just about every flag,” said the 27-year-old titan, in search of his ninth major title this week. “It’s very penal. … Over 18 holes, I had two realistic looks at birdie, No.16 and No.17 back to back, and I missed them both.”

Woods might have been the only player on the property commenting on the difficulty of the course after the round. Perhaps he might have found pins more accessible if he had hit more than six fairways.

Other elite players — Ernie Els (69), Phil Mickelson (70), Padraig Harrington (69) and Sergio Garcia (69) — came off the course cursing their inability to take advantage of conditions.

“It played as easy as it could have played,” said Mickelson, who missed a load of putts. “You could go at just about every flag out there with it still and soft, and it’s somewhat disappointing not to be 4- or 5-under given that it’s only going to get much tougher. You could really go low today, and we don’t often say that at an Open.”

A handful of virtual unknowns did just that. Among the top nine players on the leader board at 2 under or better, only 1997 British Open winner Justin Leonard (66), 1989 British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia (68) and top-10 machine Jim Furyk (67) have had even remote success at the majors over the last decade.

“I think part of the reason you’re seeing some different names is because this course lends itself to letting more guys into the championship,” Leonard said. “It doesn’t have the length that the course had last year, and that’s a good thing. I don’t think we need to be playing those types of courses every year. … This is a great U.S. Open track, a vintage shotmaker’s course.”

And through at least the first round, it’s given us a vintage shotmaker as the leader.

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