- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 18, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland

The most unpredictable major in modern history now features no Tiger, a living legend and a links neophyte.

Clearly irked by an opening-round, red-number rout, the Ailsa Course summoned Mother Nature’s help to turn the golf world upside-down during Friday’s blustery, wet second stanza. Suddenly nasty Turnberry swallowed Tiger Woods and then spat the world No. 1 Stateside, instead turning its fickle fancy on perhaps the oddest couple of midpoint leaders in major history.

Tom Watson and Steve Marino are the polar opposites atop the board at the 138th British Open. Both are American and stand at 5-under 135 through 36 holes on the Ayrshire links. That’s where the similarities end.

At 59, Watson is the oldest leader or co-leader in major history, a links legend boasting five British Open titles and three Senior British Open titles. Even before this week’s Open, Major Tom was probably the greatest links golfer in history. Two mystifying, age-defying, reason-mocking rounds later, there’s absolutely no argument to the contrary.

“The outward nine was not very spectacular - was pretty awful in fact,” said Watson after going out against the wind in 4 over through seven holes and looking every minute of his 59 years. “Lady Turnberry took her gloves off today, and I knew the outgoing nine was going to be pretty tough.”

But just when it looked like Watson was going to fade into the background after one renaissance round, the links master of the ‘70s showed up on the eighth tee. With a pat on the back and a little good-natured cajoling from playing partner Sergio Garcia (“Come on, old man”), Watson delivered when he was supposed to disappear, roaring home downwind to the clubhouse behind a pair of mystical, 60-foot birdie bombs at Nos. 16 and 18 to post a second-round 70.

“The spirits are with me,” said Watson quite seriously, reminding some in attendance of the eerie promise Ben Crenshaw made on the eve of Uncle Sam’s furious Ryder Cup rally in 1999. “To be able to do what I’m doing out here, making a few lucky putts here and there and still feeling like I have a chance to win, that’s pretty cool at age 59. That’s why it’s kind of spiritual. … I’ve played links golf for 34 years. It’s part of the fabric of my life.”

The yin to Watson’s yang, the 29-year-old Fairfax native Marino wasn’t even born when Watson won his second British Open at Turnberry over Jack Nicklaus in the famed Duel in the Sun. And he had never been to the British Isles, much less played a single shot on a links course, before arriving at Turnberry early Tuesday.

Perhaps experience is overrated.

“Obviously, it’s an advantage to have experience,” said Marino, he of no major history, no PGA Tour wins and a skill for self-contradiction. “But it can also be an advantage to not have any experience. I haven’t really experienced any nightmares over here yet, knock wood.”

Sure, experience isn’t a must. After all, Watson won in his first British Open start (1975 at Carnoustie) with zero links history. But without even touching the folly of comparing a 29-year-old journeyman to a golf immortal, simply consider the class of golf Marino and Watson have played thus far at Turnberry.

While Watson has masterfully maneuvered his way around the links with high-percentage fairways-and-greens precision, Marino is simply in the midst of a torrid affair with Lady Luck. During Friday’s second round, Marino holed out from 116 yards, holed out from a bunker and recorded 10 one-putts to offset a lousy ball-striking round that netted him only six hit greens.

That’s not great form - that’s outrageous fortune.

It’s why they don’t hand out green jackets or silver cups after 36 holes. And it’s also why there’s only one sure bet left at this zany British Open: Watson might not hold on to win his record-tying sixth claret jug, but Marino won’t be anywhere in sight when the guy in the kilt cranks up the octopus come Sunday’s presentation ceremony.

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