- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland — Turnberry back the clock.

Tom Watson chucked his AARP card in the Firth of Clyde and proved again that links golf is the game’s ultimate equalizer.

Posting a brilliant, bogey-free 65 that conjured memories of his famed 1977 triumph at Turnberry over Jack Nicklaus, the 59-year-old authored an opening-round clinic Thursday to stroll into contention at the 138th British Open.

“When you get to be my age, you just don’t know how you’re going to [feel when you] wake up,” joked Watson, who has collected a record eight titles in British and Senior British opens. “That golf swing might be there, and it might not.”

Actually, what Watson managed Thursday was more a triumph of the mind than a renaissance effort from a creaky body. Sure, Watson struck the ball beautifully in hitting all but two fairways and all but three greens. Sure, the balky putter that has betrayed him throughout his latter years behaved around the 7,204-yard Ailsa Course.

But Thursday’s time warp was built on Watson’s familiarity with a game that is a mystery to most younger, more powerful players. Links golf isn’t like its parkland, target-golf offspring. It doesn’t require towering drives that carry 300 yards, nor cloud-piercing, mortar-shot approaches. In fact, it mocks those necessities of weekly life on the PGA Tour, even on its kindest days.

Links golf is basically a ground game, not an aerial assault like its bastardized cousin. Links golf depends on feel, touch, imagination and smarts - traits that don’t diminish as rapidly with age. At Augusta National, Watson is a dinosaur, a faded superhero no longer able to leap tall buildings with a 10-story 7-iron.

Acknowledged Watson: “Being a ceremonial golfer is when you feel like you can’t compete. I’m a ceremonial golfer at Augusta, I can tell you that.”

But on a links course, where genius is measured by precision and course management, not simple swing speed, Watson is still a master. His boring drives hit the rock-hard links fairways and run 60 more yards, turning a pedestrian 275-yard drive into a 335-yard clout. Spin isn’t necessary into greens designed to reward hopping, trundling approaches. Nope, on links courses the approach prerequisites are feel, judgment and experience.

“Links golf is not played very much,” Watson said. “As somebody said yesterday, there’s like 160 links courses in the world, and 159 of them are here [in the United Kingdom]. And the pros don’t play links golf except in the Open Championships or the Senior Open Championships. So the older guys have an advantage. We’ve played under these conditions, and we kind of get a feel for it. And that feel is worth its weight in gold when you’re playing.”

Among four Opens and two Senior Opens, Watson has played 21 competitive rounds at Turnberry, posting two victories (1977 British Open and 2003 Senior British Open). He is the oldest player in the field this week, but he knows the Ailsa Course better than anyone else in the field.

And he wasn’t the only elder statesman to parlay experience into success Thursday. Of the 20 players who posted rounds of 67 or better, one was a twentysomething comer: Camilo Villegas (66). Several others were on the wrong side of 40: Watson, 45-year-old leader Miguel Angel Jimenez (64), 49-year-old Mark Calcavecchia (67), 52-year-old Mark O’Meara (67) and 46-year-old Vijay Singh (67).

“Look at a lot of the guys out there who are playing well, mostly some of the older guys,” said Tiger Woods, who fought his swing to an opening 71. “Both Marks are up there - Calc and O’Meara - and obviously Tom, so three Open Championship winners. They obviously understand how to play this kind of golf.”

Aged success at the British Open is nothing new. Last year, 53-year-old Greg Norman nearly won at Birkdale. In fact, go back to the 1977 Open at Turnberry and a couple of the names and scores jump out aside from the Watson-Nicklaus duel: During the third round that year, Arnold Palmer and Peter Thomson carded 67s; both were 47 and more than a dozen years past their primes.

That’s links golf, a brand of the game that discriminates against impudence, not age. A brand of the game that can turn a Tiger into a kitten and an iconic has-been back into Major Tom.

“So how am I going to do? That’s what you all want to know,” Watson said. “Well, I don’t know. I don’t have a clue. … Will I be able to handle the pressure? I don’t know. The light switch may go on, and I may play without too much pressure, or the pressure might be too much to handle. I do know that I’ve been there before.”

Therein lies the links rub.

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