A year ago, a wily old veteran of the grand old game had a chance to do the unthinkable — win the British Open over the age of 50, a player who had once upon a time charmed the world and become a legend.
Here we are again.
In a tournament that lost its marquee player on Friday, we find ourselves rooting still for history as Tom Watson, on the doorstep of 60, is in contention of pulling off the most amazing victory the game of golf has ever seen.
You know the drill by now. Before the final round of each major championship, I try to work through the leader board and sift through who I think can win, who I don’t believe will win and finally, my choice as the next major champion.
I fell in love with the story along with everyone else last year, and picked Greg Norman to prevail. It didn’t happen, of course. But have I learned my lesson, or will I fall in love again?
Who Won’t Win
Steve Marino (+1)
I loved his toughness on Saturday, where he made a mess of the first five holes before finding some magic and going from even to 2-under. But this is Marino’s first Open, and his links-golf life consists of the first three rounds of his Open. One wayward shot in the Open can destroy you, and his tee shot on the par-3 15th led to a triple bogey. He’s alive, but he’d be a surprise winner. Of course, as Paul Lawrie and Todd Hamilton, surprises can definitely happen at the Open.
Bryce Molder (E)
The biggest mover of the day went off on the sixth group of the day and ended up with a 67 and a tie for eighth entering Sunday. Good luck matching that round on Sunday.
Tiger Woods (MC)
In a span of six holes, Woods played in 7-over. It was probably the worst six holes Woods has played as a professional, and it led to an early flight home. He missed the cut by a shot, and he deserved to. He didn’t play well on a scoring day on Thursday, either. Is it me, or does his swing, even when he’s winning on the PGA Tour, just look off? That it’s too violent at impact?
Mark Calcavecchia (+3)
Some guys just play well on certain courses, and Calcavecchia, who won the Open 20 years ago, seems to thrive on links golf. He has a chance, but his beat-up body just won’t let him.
Thongchai Jaidee (E)
He’s from Thailand and he weighs 138 pounds. He’d be the most forgettable Open champ ever.
Who Can Win
Retief Goosen (-2)
He made eagle on the par-5 17th, which should be a critical hole on Sunday. He almost won the Scottish Open last week before the putting bug got him (two four-putts), but he has been steely this week. He’s got a great resume as a two-time U.S. Open champion, but he just hasn’t been the same player on Sundays since his monumental collapse at the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. But he could exorcise those demons in one round and return to top echelon of the game.
Ross Fisher (-3)
I came so close to picking him to win, and before you’re done reading this column, I may have changed my mind. He’s a guy few know anything about, but in tournaments that depend largely on accuracy and consistency, Fisher is becoming a top-flight player. He was just a shot back of the lead when he stood at the 17th tee at Bethpage last month, made the final four in the world match play and he might have been the best player on the course in the final groups on Saturday. Look out for this guy the next five years.
Mathew Goggin (-3)
He’s in the final pairing with Watson, which may be a good thing should Watson play poorly, or terrible. Goggin’s played in a total of eight majors, and made the cut in a whopping two of them. Tough road ahead.
Stewart Cink (-1)
Another great ball-striker, which is why he’s near the top of the leader board. He can play well on Sundays as long as he’s not anywhere close to Tiger. And Eldrick’s not here.
Jim Furyk (-1)
See above. Furyk has been really close to capturing a major the last two years or so, but he’s found a way to give them away in the closing holes. Poor driving decisions in the ’06 and ’07 U.S. Opens have kept Furyk from becoming a Hall of Famer.
Anybody +2 or better
There are some huge names here — Vijay Singh (+2), Angel Cabrera (+1) — and extremely capable names as well — Boo Weekley (+1), Henrik Stensen (+1), Camilo Villegas (+1), Justin Rose (+2) and yes, John Daly (+2). The weather is always a factor, and any player within five or six shots can make a stunning move.
Lee Westwood (-2)
One of the two most rhythmic swings on the golf course all week long, Westwood seems poised to become the player everyone thought he would be when he burst onto the scene and almost immediately played his way into the top 5 in the world. He crashed as low as 216th at the 2003 PGA Championship, but he’s come all the way back. He was one shot out of a playoff with Woods and Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines and he was in the hunt for a while at Bethpage.
Hearing Westwood speak following his round, he sounds like a man who has finally figured things out, playing cautiously in majors, finding fairways and aiming for the middle of the greens. He says Torrey Pines last year taught him a lot. It looks like it.
Who Will Win
Tom Watson (-4)
I know. I’m a sucker for a good story.
But I think this is more than just a great story.
I truly believe Tom Watson can win the British Open.
And with another 40-foot bomb for a birdie, and enough of those treacherous 5-footers, he might.
That other perfect, rhythmic swing on the course Saturday? It belonged to Watson, who drives the ball beautifully — and long — and still has an uncanny knack for draining long, long putts.
But it’s more than that. His reaction to every shot is exactly the same. After he makes a swing, you can’t tell if it’s right on line or being driven way left because of the wind. He makes bogeys, but no big numbers, and seems to play the round as if he knows and understands that there will be good holes and there will be bad holes. Ho-hum. There’s no panic in him.
And let’s not forget, Watson’s won at Turnberry twice. Yes, twice. We all know about the Duel in the Sun in 1977, but he also won the Senior British Open at Turnberry in 2003. The five-time British Open champ has won the senior event three times as well. This is just who he is.
Like Jack Nicklaus at Augusta at the age of 46 in 1986, the real surprise was that nobody saw it coming. He knew every little mound and slope on that course, and it all came together in one perfect week, on one perfect back nine on one perfect day.
Despite being 59, the equation is all there for Watson, who has floundered twice the last two days, only to come back with stirring birdies on the back nine to close brilliant rounds. And no American is more beloved on English soil than one Tom Watson.
Will this happen, or will it end as ingloriously as it did last year for Norman? We’ll know in 18 holes.
Why not, right? You could say stranger things have happened.
But in golf — no, in sports — this would be a first. Something like this has never happened.
Maybe on Sunday it will.