By David Ferguson
There is sometimes a feeling that the Europeans make too much of their "superiority" at links golf. Certainly there was little to justify the claim as the afternoon wore on during the opening round of The Open at Turnberry, while more and more Americans, Australians and South Africans – interspersed with the odd Japanese and Colombian - picked themselves a place on the front page of the leaderboard. Finally Miguel Angel Jiminez stepped up to the challenge, and spared European blushes with a fine round of 64 – six-under par – that gave him the first-round lead.
Jiminez was one of the few to make his sway around the course without a bogey on his card. He was already well-placed at four-under after nine. But the two late birdies that secured his one-stroke lead did not come until 17 and 18.
And in spite of Miguel's fine round – one that he later described as his "best-ever opener in a Major" – the truth is that the day belonged to another man. Tom Watson, "the King of the Links" showed his younger opponents the way to go with a flawless round of 65 that looked like giving him the lead until Jiminez came up with his late flourish.
It is as much a pleasure to listen to Watson speak as to watch him play. He genuinely does epitomize everything that is good about golf, and stands as living proof that the past is not something seen through rose-tinted spectacles, but genuinely was as special as we would all wish to believe.
Watson is at the same time self-effacing without ever straying into false modesty, and self-confident without being capable of sounding cocky. He is still motivated by a genuine and unconcealed will to win. And when he talks about opponents as "kids" there is no trace of condescension, simply an honest acknowledgement of the seniority and the years under his belt that could comfortably make him the father, or even the grandfather, of the two players who had the privilege of accompanying him around the Turnberry course today.
Watson simply kept it simple, and it really was as simple as that. He brought his experience and his knowledge of links golf and the course to bear, and steadily reeled off a succession of fairways, greens, and putts until the birdie chances presented themselves, when he proceeded to take them – on 1, 3, 10, 12, and 17.
He was happy to give credit where it was due to the favorable playing conditions – play around Turnberry will never be easier, with no wind, warm sunshine, and blue skies. "The course was defenseless," he acknowledged. "She was certainly giving up some strokes." But key to his effort was the ability to play the right stroke on the right hole.
"There's no doubt that we older guys have an advantage on courses like this. O'Meara and Calcavecchia are there as well. Experience is a huge advantage. I still remember every shot I played on every hole in the last round in '77. Then I see the kids and I watch them play – they just don't hit some of the strokes the way I would. I know how to take some of the risk out of the game."
His point was perfectly captured on the intimidating 16th hole. With a burn right in front of the green waiting to swallow the balls of the unwary, Watson played it as easily as you possibly could: tee to fairway; fairway to green – pin high with a flat medium length putt; roll the first one dead, and knock it in for par.
Playing partner Sergio Garcia found the rough to the left of the green. His chip out hit the green but it also found the agonizing slope that took his ball into the water. He needed an up-and-down for double-bogey that left him with a disappointing level-par 70.
The third member of the trio, amateur Matteo Manassero – the 16-year old Italian prodigy who is the youngest ever British Amateur Champion – was over-cautious and onto the fringe at the back of the green in two. He needed his putter three times to get down in bogey 5. But Manassero can be well-satisfied with his day's work. He finished on 71 and has every chance of staying for the weekend. Hopefully he and Garcia both learned something useful from the maestro today.
Veterans O'Meara and Calcavecchia both shot 67s to finish in a tie for 10th. Another former Open winner, Ben Curtis – in 2003 at Royal St George's he became the first debut winner since Watson himself in 1975 – carded a 66 to finish one stroke behind Watson. All took advantage of Turnberry's benign conditions to set out their stall from the outset.
But the lady has teeth, and they are sure to be bared before the tournament ends. Proof of that lies in the very fact that in spite of the perfect weather, we had none of the seven / eight / nine-under-pars that we have seen in recent weeks at Loch Lomond and in France. The worst indignity she would suffer was Jiminez at six-under, and she will hand out harsh treatment to those who stray too far into the rough in search of extra yards.
None knows that better than Rory McIlroy. The young Irishman found the thick stuff with his tee-shot on the par-4 8th, then could only move his ball forward a matter of yards. He took several minutes to find it again even though it had landed within touching distance of the spectators behind the ropes, and then was forced to take a drop. To his credit he escaped with nothing worse than a double-bogey on that occasion, and went on to record one-under for the round and keep himself very much in contention.
Elsewhere, the day was as packed with incident as you would hope and expect from the opening round of The Open Championship, some of it trivial, some of it dramatic, but all adding character to the day.
Making the day's biggest contribution to the drama was Japan's Kenichi Kuboya. Teeing off at four o'clock in the afternoon, when play is drawing towards a close at many of the venues on the European Tour (and there were still two groups behind him!) Kuboya had alternated three birdies and three bogeys to lie at level-par for the day, a decent enough score, when he arrived at the 15th tee.
He then proceeded to close his round with birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie, to pick up five strokes in the last four holes and leap from around 50th to a tie for second with Curtis and Watson.