By Cameron Morfit, GOLF Magazine
TURNBERRY, Scotland -- When Tom Watson, 59, won the 1977 Turnberry Open, since nicknamed the "Duel in the Sun," Tiger Woods was still just 1, still months away from his national television debut with Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show.
When Watson won his last of five British Opens, in 1983, Sergio Garcia, one of his two playing partners Thursday, was 3. Italian amateur Matteo Manassero, 16, the third member of their threesome, was still almost 10 years from conception.
All of which is to say Watson is old. But he didn't feel his age in his practice rounds for the 138th British Open, and didn't look it while firing a five-birdie, no-bogey 65 Thursday to take the early lead. Greg Norman did it at the 2008 Open, and now Watson has proved it, too: The golf ball doesn't know how old you are.
"It doesn't feel a whole lot out of the ordinary from 32 years ago," Watson said after dusting Woods (one-over 71), Garcia (70) and the rest of the field. "Except that I don't have the confidence in my putting as I had 32 years ago."
Stewart Cink briefly got to five under before giving a stroke back at the last to card a four-under 66. He was part of a logjam at four under, which also included Australians Matthew Goggin and John Senden, the explosive Camilo Villegas, and Steve Stricker, who won last week's John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour.
Bidding for his 15th major championship title and his first of 2009, Woods stumbled to a back-nine 37 for a disappointing 71.
"I certainly made a few mistakes out there today," he said after being outplayed by both of his playing partners, teenager Ryo Ishikawa and Lee Westwood, each of whom shot 68.
"The misses I had were the same shots I was hitting on the range," said Woods, who lost several shots to the right. "So I need to go work on that and get it squared away for tomorrow."
Watson seemed to be infallible, and said afterward, "There was something slightly spiritual about today."
He got a text message from Barbara Nicklaus, wife of Jack, wishing him luck this week, and wrote back, "You know, we really miss you over here."
"And I really meant it," Watson said after his round. "It's not the same without Jack playing in the tournament."
Yes and no. Watson's score of 65 matched his Saturday and Sunday scores from 1977. On a longer, tougher Turnberry, he said he was able to channel some of the good feelings from that week, and a final round of which he remembers every shot.
Watson has played in three Opens at Turnberry, the last of which, in 1994, he felt he should have won were it not for a balky putter. He's also played in two Senior British Opens here. As Norman proved last year, experience is especially helpful on a links course.
Mark Calcavecchia, 49, the 1989 Open champion, shot a three-under 67, as did 1998 Open champion Mark O'Meara, 52. Vijay Singh, looking for his first Open title at age 46, also shot 67.
"The older guys have an advantage," Watson said. "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."
British fans supported Watson as if he were an honorary Scot, some with shouts of, "Show 'em how it's done, Tom!"
That's par for the course for Watson here, and he laughed in the pressroom about being recognized.
"In the States they don't know who the heck I am," he said, "but over here — I don't get a big head about it, but people come up, 'Tome! Tome!'" Watson's Scottish brogue elicited laughs. "'Nice to meet you, Tome!'"
Watson also has been helped by an instructional DVD he is making, for release this fall. It's helped him remember exactly how he put together his Hall of Fame career, which is no small thing. He mentioned his failing memory several times after his round.
"That's kind of really got me thinking about my golf swing," Watson said. "And it's helped me — I think it's helped me kind of solidify what am I, what are the important things about the golf swing that I want to teach you. And that's how I teach myself."