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Watson makes us believe again

Friday, April 09, 2010

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The press building was full of journalists from around the world prepared to write a first-round story about a T.W. from Stanford.

Two-time Masters champion Tom Watson, 60, smiles after making his fifth birdie of the round, on No. 18. (Andrew Davis Tucker/Special)

Just not this T.W.

Tom Watson (Cardinal Class of '71) tied his best round ever at Augusta National Golf Club.

At age 60.

On a replaced hip.

"Ever?!" asked Phil Mickelson, tied with Watson and three others for second atop a star-studded Masters Tournament leaderboard. "Even back when he was winning? Wow."

Watson challenged our pre-conceived notions of what is possible at Turnberry last summer when he came within one par of winning the British Open at age 59. He said even then, however, that Augusta National is no course for old men.

Tom Watson walks up the 18th fairway with his caddie, son Michael, who got engaged Sunday while playing with his father. (Andrew Davis Tucker/Special)

Tell that to the three senior tour players who broke 70 (leader Fred Couples and Sandy Lyle).

Still basking in the glow of Turnberry, Watson went out and needed only 24 putts to tie his best Masters round in 20 years. His first of three career 67s came in the final round of 1977, giving him his first green jacket.

Where would he rank this round?

"Well, tied for first," he said. "It's all about the score."

Watson has missed all but one cut here since tying for fourth in 1997. That was the last year he shot a round in the 60s in Augusta.

This Watson is different from even the one who shot 65 in the first round of the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields. He had suffered for years with a bum hip that he finally had replaced in 2008.

With that ailment fixed, his son, Michael -- caddying for him this week -- gave him a typical Missouri challenge before Thursday's round.

"Dad, show me," Michael said. "Show me you can still play this golf course."

To do it, Watson used all of his accrued knowledge from 37 years of playing at Augusta. He got up-and-down on six consecutive holes from nine through 14. Then he birdied 15, 16 and 18 to post the first of five 67s on the day.

"I've said I have to play better than 90 percent to be successful on this golf course," Watson said. "My driving has been very good. That's been much better than 90 percent. My iron game is just a little questionable. My putting is, I would have to say, above 90 percent. So I'm above that 90 percent threshold."

This comes as no surprise to his peers of any generation.

"Tom Watson is one of those legendary figures that really is ageless," said Peter Jacobsen, a senior pro who cried when Watson lost last summer at Turnberry. "You have to be convinced he's 60 because he plays like a 30-year-old."

Watson started his day by going outside the clubhouse at 7:40 a.m. to watch two golfers he used to play against in his prime as they hit the honorary tee shots.

"My friends are there," he said. "It was a special moment."

Watson isn't going to be a ceremonial golfer anytime soon. He already has won this year in a Champions Tour thriller against rookie Couples, then became the first 60-year-old to post a top 10 finish in a European Tour event in Dubai in February.

Lee Westwood -- who missed joining Watson and Stewart Cink in the Open playoff by one shot -- isn't surprised he's once again tied with a man whose last major win came when Westwood was only 10. He was Watson's partner in a par-3 event in Dubai.

"Just getting that close to him and seeing how well he swings the club and how well he strikes the ball, he's always going to have class," Westwood said.

It has already been a memorable week for the Watson family. His son, Michael, got engaged to Beth Lindquist while playing the 13th hole Sunday with his father.

Now the father and son are trying to make Masters Week unforgettable for everyone else.

"We have three more days and we came here to accomplish something great," his son said.

Is it even possible to believe he can keep it up against a stacked field on a course as testing as Augusta?

"The tendency would be to look at his score and think, well, it was one good round but we still have three more," Mickelson said. "After what he did at the British Open, we have to believe he could keep this up. He's going to be a real factor in this event."

Like a true veteran, Watson isn't getting too far ahead of himself.

"It matters on Sunday," he said of his place among the leaders. "That's all that matters. Every player in that field knows that."

Except for Couples, every other player in the field -- including that other Stanford T.W. (could-have-been Class of '98) -- failed to beat the oldest man in the Masters.

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