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Watson turns back clock at Old Course

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland ­– At 68, Tom Watson is an anomaly. Or maybe simply a freak of nature. Whatever he might be, Watson showed that age can be irrelevant for someone who still can golf his ball.

Such was the case in Thursday’s first round of the Senior British Open at the Old Course. Watson narrowly missed shooting his age when his 25-foot birdie putt failed to fall at the final hole.

The 18th green – named Tom Morris, after the club’s greenskeeper and four-time British Open champion – has been the scene of many historic collapses. Remember Doug Sanders’ missed 3-foot putt that handed the Claret Jug to Jack Nicklaus in 1970? Watson’s missed putt doesn’t reach that level of infamy, but try telling that to the five-time Open champion.

“It was straight uphill; just broke a little bit left‑to‑right and I said to myself, I know it's slow, and I dogged it,” Watson said.

It was a rare miscue for Watson, a three-time Senior Open champion, during a bogey-free round.

“I hit a lot of quality shots today. My favorite shot was the 3-iron I hit at 17,” said Watson, recalling his approach to the famous Road Hole, where he made par. “I pulled my tee ball a little bit to the left, but I had a good lie in the rough over there, and I hit a bullet 3‑iron about like that,” he said, holding his hand just above the ground to illustrate the low trajectory, “and it just got up in the upper level [of the green]. For me, that's a great accomplishment, just to get on that upper level at the Road Hole.”

Watson hasn’t played competitively since late April, but that doesn’t mean he came to Scotland without a chance to win.

Watson, who lives in Houston, prepared at Royal Oaks Country Club for links golf by hitting chip shots from thin lies under trees and practicing putts from 80 feet.

“I know when you come to St. Andrews you're going to have 80-foot putts,” Watson said with a smile. “So, I practiced a lot – just back and forth 80-foot putts – and I'm putting it pretty good now.”

Watson trails the co-leaders, American Kirk Triplett and Thailand’s Thaworn Wiratchant, by four strokes and knows that he will have to shoot his age in each of the next three rounds to contend (scores). Yet, with his smile, mannerisms and general demeanor, he believes that the goal is within reach. 

“I shot my age a number of times, but not as many times as Hale Irwin,” said Watson, noting the fellow World Golf Hall of Fame member whose 45 career victories ranks No. 1 on the Champions Tour. “I shot 63 at Toshiba [Classic, in 2014] when I was 64 and I see Hale and I just say, ‘Hey, Hale, I just broke may age.’ He said, ‘Big deal.’ ”

Irwin doesn’t remember the tête-à-tête, but concedes that if he said it, it would have been in a teasing nature.

“He's an amazing person,” Irwin, 73, said after shooting 77. “I admire the way he can go at it and stay at it. Some of us, we're looking for lunch.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli