Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Elementary for master Watson

Tom Watson of USA waves his cap to the gallery after a five-under par 65 during round one of the 138th Open Championship

It was like heaven at Turnberry yesterday and five-times Open champion Tom Watson took the opportunity to show his supreme majesty.

Watson turned back the pages of history with a masterful first-round 65, the same score he posted on Saturday and Sunday here in 1977, when he eclipsed Jack Nicklaus in the unforgettable 'Duel in the Sun'.

Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain cheekily nipped ahead of Watson to top the first-round leaderboard by completing a flawless 64, sinking monster putts for birdie on 17 and 18.

Ben Curtis, America's stunning winner at Royal St George's in 2003 and Japan's Kenichi Kuboya also shot five-under 65s but the opening day belonged to Watson as he gave golf's wham-bam generation a master class in the art of picking locks, not blowing them.

Just 49 days shy of his 60th birthday, Watson proved that cunning and superior shot-making along with experience are every bit as important as power at the seaside, which is the true glory of links golf.

“There was some spirituality out there today, just the serenity of it was pretty neat,” said Watson.

“She was defenceless today. Obviously the golf course played with no wind and it was an easy test, if you can have an easy test at an Open Championship.

“The wind is supposed to blow a little bit more in the coming days so she's going to bare her teeth a little bit more,” said Watson, explaining that he'd prefer to take his chances “in a howling gale” than see an old friend so vulnerable.

That he'd address the course in such familiar terms is understandable. This week is Watson's sixth championship at Turnberry; his best score was the final-round 64 which clinched victory at the 2003 Seniors Open.

That day the wind “blew like the dickens” he recalled, unlike yesterday when the stillness was shattered only by a spectacular fly-past by four US fighter jets as their fellow American walked up 18.

Ironically, Watson had just played the shot that characterised his round and expertise in this arena, a 200-yard seven-iron out of the rough which he bounced and ran into the final green on his way to a comfortable par.

The oldest player in the field, Watson fittingly played yesterday with the youngest, 16-year-old Amateur champion Mattero Mannassero of Italy, and Spain's Sergio Garcia, who described as “awesome” the range and quality of shots Watson hit yesterday.

Garcia himself had to be satisfied with an opening round of 70, which was as wildly inconsistent as his eagle three at seven and double-bogey six at 16.

Tiger Woods, the runaway pre-tournament favourite, found the going as tough as a man jogging on quicksand.

The world No 1 was less than 18 months old when Watson won the here in 1977 and, judging by his performance yesterday, he remains pretty adept at tossing toys out of the proverbial pram.

The golf course might have been becalmed but Woods certainly wasn't as he failed to take advantage of the conditions, on one occasion throwing his club on the ground in fury after playing a poor shot out of the rough on nine.

For self discipline and true grit under intense pressure, the prize goes to defending champion Padraig Harrington for carving a first-round 69 out of trying circumstances.

Harrington's trust in his game has been seriously undermined this season as a swing change went awry and, after eight missed cuts in 15 stroke play tournaments, few gave the Dubliner any chance of completing a historic hat trick of Open victories.

Yet, running repairs by veteran coach Bob Torrance earlier this week and plenty of positive vibes from mind guru Dr Bob Rotella got Harrington to the first tee yesterday in the right mood to perform heroics.

Later he'd complain there was “a lot of trepidation in my play” and bemoan his inability to go on the attack and take full advantage of near-perfect conditions. Yet Harrington was Houdini-like yesterday in his ability to pick his way out of tight corners.

As at last week's Irish PGA Championship, his short game was magnificent and his putting assured.

The tone was set at the second where his approach pitched sideways off the green and into a hollow. Harrington chipped nicely into the face of the hill and, after his ball rolled out to five feet, sank the par-saving putt.

He then played a lovely rescue club out of a terrible lie in the rough to the right of the fairway at the third, getting up and down deftly for his first birdie of the championship, while his par-save from tangled rough to the right of the eighth green was nothing short of miraculous. Okay, Harrington dropped a shot after hitting his approach left of the green at 16, but he bounced back with birdie at 17.

These are baby steps when viewed alongside his triumphal march to victory at last year's Open and US PGA Championships. Yet the confidence Harrington must draw from his short play and his putting should eventually spread to his long game.

As those super slow-motion cameras showed yesterday, his swing may be a tad shorter than before but it's not far away. Torrance's 'quick fix' appears to be working, though it still takes a real leap of faith to envision Harrington with the Claret Jug in his grasp on Sunday.

Tied with the defending champion on one-under was Rory McIlroy who witnessed the shot of the championship so far at 17 when his playing companion, Retief Goosen, with just one leg in the sand, played an astonishing chip from the face of a pot bunker to within one foot of the pin for an unlikely par on his way to a 67.

It's a measure of the ease with which Turnberry played yesterday that Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley were tied 65th after posting one-over par rounds of 71.

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