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Friday, July 17, 2009
Garcia's pep talk proved key for Watson

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- Tom Watson is taking it all in at Turnberry. Along with the beautiful scenery, it is easy for him to get sentimental here, owing to the memories of one of the game's greatest triumphs' occurring on these very grounds.

That is why a stunning first-round 65 and two birdie putts that seemingly started at the Isle of Arran on Friday have the 59-year-old Hall of Famer talking in spiritual tones, invoking another era to propel him to the top of the leaderboard at the 138th Open Championship.

Then again, a good ol' kick in the pants from a gushing playing partner didn't hurt, either.

"As we walked up the eighth fairway, I went up to him and gave him a little pat on the back and said, 'Come on, old man, get it going,'" Sergio Garcia said. "He said, 'Today, I am an old man and I'm playing like an old man.' I told him to remember yesterday and that it was time for us to get going."

Garcia, 29, was not even born when Watson won the 1977 Open here, the famed "Duel in the Sun" in which he shot 65-65 on the final 36 holes to Jack Nicklaus' 65-66. That showing earned Watson the second of his five Open Championships by 1 shot.

Sergio Garcia/Tom Watson
When Tom Watson was struggling in the second round Friday, playing partner Sergio Garcia gave him a little kick in the pants to jump-start the 59-year-old's round.

Thursday's opening round made for a day of nostalgia, and Watson soaked it all up. But when he bogeyed five holes in a six-hole stretch Friday and dropped 4 strokes behind leader Steve Marino, it appeared to be a nice, one-day story for the eight-time major champion.

And that's when Garcia stepped in.

"That was nice of Sergio to give me a little pep talk there," Watson said. "He was making a joke out of it, but I said, 'Well, I feel like an old man.' I played two really good shots at No. 8 and then two good shots at No. 9 and made a putt. Turned my round around."

Watson birdied the ninth and 11th holes, then added two long putts at the 16th and 18th holes that he estimated were each 60 feet in length, the last one getting a huge reaction from the chilled fans in the jammed bleachers and a celebratory hop and leg kick from Watson.

"That was my Scottish jig," he said.

The long putt at 18 tied him for the lead with Marino -- who had never played a links course until this week -- meaning Watson is the oldest player to lead any round of a major championship, dating back to World War II, when such records were first recorded.

"It was kind of spiritual," said Watson, a 39-time winner on the PGA Tour who won his first Open Championship in 1975 at Carnoustie. "I said that yesterday, that the spirits are with me. They keep me kind of focused on the game plan and not getting really too frustrated after seven holes.

"And finishing the way I did, it just made me feel like my patience was rewarded."

Watson has plenty of inspiration here. Although joking often about his memory, Watson said he recalled every shot from the final round in '77, a time when he helped solidify the notion that he was surpassing Nicklaus as the game's next great player.

He talked about playing the par-3 course along with Nicklaus in front of the Turnberry Hotel after a disappointing defeat here at the 1994 Open. It was approaching 11 p.m., and the longtime rivals and friends were having fun on the little course with their wives when a security guard approached, only to back off when realizing whom he was about to chase away. "Carry on," he said, sheepishly.

Then there was the text message on Wednesday from Barbara Nicklaus, who wished him good luck, prompting the reply, "We really miss you here."

"Just don't ask me to tweet or twit or whatever you call that," Watson said, to laughter.

Technologically speaking, Watson remains a marvel in a young man's game. He no longer can compete with "the kids," as he calls them, at most places, simply because the strength and length needed to keep up is lacking.

But on a links course, where those factors are not as imperative, Watson -- one of the game's great ball strikers even today -- can hold his own if he can keep the ball in play and make a few putts.

And it doesn't hurt that he is feeding off emotion.

"I guess the memories are with me, all the wonderful memories I've had playing links golf," Watson said. "Walking down the fairways, walking up onto the greens, people showing their respect for me, showing my respect for them. It's been since 1975, 34 years I've played links golf. And it's a fabric of my life, I can tell you that.

"To be able to be doing 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."

"He can play," said Garcia, who is only 4 strokes back and tied for 15th. "It's amazing to see the way he plays, the way he hits the ball."

A year ago at Royal Birkdale, Watson played well, too, but not well enough to make the cut. Padraig Harrington, who eventually would overtake 53-year-old Greg Norman to win his second major championship, recalled a driving-range session during the week when Watson was hitting balls behind him.

"So I'm hitting shots, and I could see his ball flight coming out, and he's the only player I stopped the whole week and turned around to watch him hit the golf ball," Harrington said. "I've never seen a golf ball hit like that in the wind. It was unbelievable how well he hit the ball beside me.

"The consistency, as I said ... I had to stop hitting my own shots, I was distracted by these shots going out from sort of over my left shoulder and I had to stand back and pretend I was cleaning the club and have a little bit of a look."

You can bet a few people will be having a look this weekend.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.