Tom Watson turns back the clock

SANDWICH, England -- With water still dripping from his cap, Tom Watson stepped under cover to discuss his rain-soaked round, a 72 that was far more impressive than a raw number would ever indicate.

"You just like to see us pros suffer," he quipped, a big smile on his face, hardly looking like a man in distress.

To say that Watson loved the conditions at Royal St. George's on Saturday during the third round of the Open Championship might be romanticizing his connection with the tournament a bit too much.

Nonetheless, Watson was hardly complaining, and he walked away quite content to have scored as well as he did. His 2-over-par 72 was tops for the day when he finished and ended up being tied for the ninth best round Saturday when conditions significantly improved for the final groups.

At the time he was playing, the average score for the day was over 77.

"It was very good for me; I'm very grateful for that," said Watson, 61, a five-time Open champion who played through the worst of the weather. "I managed to get around with my putter today. My putter was spot-on. I made some good early putts for pars. It was great day on the greens. I just had that feel for some odd reason. I hope it continues."

Watson said the weather Saturday was not the worst he's played in at the Open. He described the third round of the 2002 Open at Muirfield as worse. That day, with wind and rain causing the temperature to plummet and a wind chill that made temperatures feel like they were in the 30s, Tiger Woods shot his worst score as a professional, an 81.

And in 1980 at Muirfield, the conditions were even more fitful -- although Watson shot 68 that day on his way to a four-stroke victory.

"One of the things that you learn is there's an old saying: 'Swing with ease into the breeze.' A lot of times you can see these young kids out there trying to hit it really hard into the wind," Watson said. "That doesn't flight the ball very well. Hitting low stingers, things like that … you don't have to hit it that hard. You can. You can just flight it by swinging it a little bit easier, and that will take the height off the ball."

How's that for a golf lesson from a legend?

"You can throw age out the window with him," said American Bo Van Pelt, who finished a group in front of Watson and shot 73. "His swing is as good as it's ever been, and he loves links golf."

But Watson didn't always care for this style of golf. He won his first Open in his first attempt in 1975 at Carnoustie. But even then, and even after defeating Jack Nicklaus in the "Duel in the Sun" at Turnberry two years later, Watson was not sold on this kind of golf.

He liked to hit the tall, towering shots that stopped on greens. He got angry at the quirky bounces and the bad breaks that are inherent on a links. He came to love the nuances of links golf, visualizing all the different ways to play shots.

And he went on to win three more Opens -- in 1980, '82 and '83.

Two years ago, Watson came within a par on the 72nd hole of becoming the oldest major champion in history, losing a playoff to Stewart Cink.

"It's really remarkable and makes me wonder, where was he all those years?" Cink said. "He won a dozen or so of these things, and then he comes back on the scene the year that he and I had the playoff. But I don't know what happened in between. It seems like he's just getting better with age."

Watson probably needed the weather to get even worse to have a chance Sunday. He finished his day at 4 over par with the leaders at 4 under. There was every reason to believe they would come back, too, but the challenge for them was not nearly as great as it was for him.

More than 90 minutes after he finished, his 72 was still the best posted, matched only by Trevor Immelman.

"We'll see where the leaders are," Watson said. "If it lightens up at all, they may get a benefit from it."

That is basically what happened, which made you wonder whether Watson woke up Saturday morning relishing the nasty conditions he could see out the window.

"I'll never tell," he said, smiling.

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