by David Ferguson
On another testing day in The Open at Turnberry, it was once again the 59-year old veteran Tom Watson who proved the master. He will enter the final day with a one-stroke lead over a tightly-packed field.
Watson produced yet another stunning comeback towards the end of his round. Bogeys on 12 and 15 cost him a lead that he had been holding for over thirty holes, but he fought back to birdie 16 and 17 and will start the final round a stroke ahead of Australian Mathew Goggin and England’s Ross Fisher.
For the third day in succession Turnberry showed a contrasting face to the players. Friday’s breeze continued to blow, but it had shifted around by more than 90 degrees from north-east to a more conventional north-west.
The result was to make the course even more difficult to play. The outward nine was still essentially into the wind, but it was blowing across the course as well as into the players’ faces, and they had a hard job keeping the ball on the fairway. The only advantage was on holes 17 and 18, and on holes 9 and 10, two of those that had put paid to Tiger’s Open hopes.
Fiendish to the point of being unplayable on Friday, they had become a friendly tap with the wind at the players’ backs, and there were birdies aplenty on 9 where the day before there had been many a bogey.
Even on downwind holes like the par-3 15 and the intimidating 16 the wind was as much a hindrance as a help. The pin placements were at the front of the green, and the strength of the breeze made it very difficult to judge the distance, hit the green, and hold the ball anywhere near the pin.
16 in particular offered a bit of fun. The green slopes steeply into water at the front, and few dared to try to hit the flag. Two that did were the young Italian amateur Matteo Manassero, and Australian Mathew Goggin.
Both managed to stop their ball between the hole and the slope back down to the water, but from their vantage points on the fairway it must have looked a very close thing. As a result an unusual phenomenon was to be seen – each of the golfers sprinted down the fairway after his approach shot to be sure of marking it on the green before it had a chance to roll back down the slope and into the water.
Manassero deserves huge credit for his efforts to date. The sure winner of the Silver Medal for best amateur, he has fallen back to three-over and joint 27th. But he is only seven strokes off the lead, and he shares his score with such illustrious names as Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jiminez. He is ahead of golfing greats like his playing partner for the first two days, World No. 3 Sergio Garcia, European Tour Leader Paul Casey, and a swathe of former Major winners that includes Davis Love III, Tom Lehmann, Zach Johnson, Paul Lawrie, and the winner of the last two Opens, Padraig Harrington. Truly a links debut of which to be proud.
From the outset it was clear that this was a day on which any par on any hole would be gratefully accepted. Only five players in the field of 73 managed a sub-par round, and at the end of the day only seven players were under par for the tournament.
Pride of place among the climbers goes once again to an unheralded American, Bryce Molder. Even his own family probably think Bryce has something to do with The X-files, but his three-under score of 67 was the best of the day by two strokes, and saw him move from a tie for second-last to a tie for 8th – a leap of 56 places.
Friday’s supremo, Australian Daniel Gaunt, enjoyed the opposite experience. From a best score of 67 on Day 2 he slumped to worst score on Day 3, a 79 that took him back to a tie for last with Japan’s Ryuji Imada.
Several players sniped at the lead, fell back, and then returned to snipe again. Watson had started his round in imperious fashion – even if he had to scramble for par on a couple of occasions, there was none of the frailty that saw him drop a stroke at every one of the first seven holes played into the wind on Friday.
The result was that he reached the turn at the same score as he had started – five under, and with a convincing two-stroke lead over his nearest rivals. No mean achievement on the day.
But then he began to falter. Bogeys on 9, 12 and 15 saw him drop to two-under, and there were already players seeking to take advantage.
First among these was Mathew Goggin of sprinting fame. Playing in the seventh-from last group, the Australian had enjoyed what seemed like a quiet day. Starting at two-under, he had dropped a stroke over the front nine and moved back to one-under. But birdies on 11 and 17, and in particular no more bogeys, took him to three-under and the clubhouse lead – a lead that he briefly held on his own.
Behind him England’s Lee Westwood was doing all the right things. A single bogey and a long succession of pars had seen him drop from three-under to two-under, but as other dropped strokes regularly that in itself was enough to move him steadily up the leaderboard.
When he birdied 17 to join Goggin in the lead a large part of the crowd gave a huge cry of delight. How England would love to have another Open winner – the first since Sir Nick Faldo in 1992. But joy turned to despair when a fluffed chip on the last led to an unnecessary bogey that dropped Lee back to two-under and into what would become fourth place. Nevertheless he is playing well and playing consistently, and he will be confident of being there with a challenge as the final round draws to a close.
Next up was Retief Goosen, in the third-from last group. The South African had started with an early birdie on 2 that took him into second place, but a double-bogey on 7 followed by two more on 12 and 14 took him back to level-par and seemingly out of contention. But again he was the beneficiary of the lapses of others, and a brilliant eagle on 17 gave him what was briefly a tie for second place at two-under, although he would end up fourth.
Lastly, there was Ross Fisher. Fisher is a young Englishman who at last seems genuinely to offer a bright future for British golf. He was the best-placed European at the 2009 US Open, and he has been a regular at the top of the leaderboard this season. He has never been far away from the top this week either.
Like Goosen, he had secured an early birdie at 3 to move to four-under, but like Goosen he had let strokes slip away at 5, 12 and 14. But he birdied 16 and then produced a real flourish on 17. His tee-shot was pushed by the wind into the left hand rough, whence he played an imperious iron to give himself a 25-footer for eagle. He could not convert, but a birdie was enough to take him to three-under and what was at that point a share of the lead.
So can Fisher deliver tomorrow? Unfortunately for English hopes, the youngster has another delivery on his mind – his pregnant wife is expected to go into labor at any time. Fisher has already committed that if this happens he will leave Turnberry and go to join her, whatever the situation in the golf, and he has refused on several occasions to go back on this undertaking.
“Like I said all along, if Jo does go into labor I’ll be supporting her one hundred percent,” he emphasized. “And I won’t be here, I’ll be with her, because it’s something that I definitely don’t want to miss. You know, it will be a shame, but I guess we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it. Who knows – to win, and then to get back home and to see the birth of our first child would obviously be a dream come true. But there’s a long way to go. Let’s just hope that we can both hold on.”
One huge advantage if Fisher does go on to play the final round to completion is that he will be partnered by Lee Westwood. Surely the two Englishmen will combine to inspire one another to give of their best? In the meantime, many of the young man’s supporters were sporting caps emblazoned with the words “Please hold on Mrs Fisher!”
And then finally there was Tom Watson. Every time the veteran has seemed to be flagging, he has forced himself back to the top of the leaderboard. Again on Saturday he seemed to be losing the place with those three bogeys, but then came the inevitable turnaround. First there was the birdie on 16, then a moment of high drama on 17. He hit a decent enough tee-shot, though as with so many others the wind pushed it left to the edge of the rough.
His supporters gasped as he seemed to have pushed his approach too far to the right in compensation. But as the ball pitched it took a huge bounce to the left and in the direction of the pin, and left him with a putt of twenty feet or so for an eagle. Brilliant use of the Turnberry contours borne of years of experience, or just one of those lucky bounces that you sometimes get in links golf? Old Tom wasn’t saying.
He couldn’t convert the eagle opportunity, but the birdie gave him sole possession of the lead yet again at four-under. As he walked towards the 18th green the crowd once more rose in acclaim, and Watson responded to their cries by joining in the Mexican wave that was sweeping the stands in anticipation of his arrival.
Asked if he was able to appreciate the magnitude of what has gone on this week at Turnberry, Watson was light-hearted in his reply: “I’m not really thinking about that. It’s your job – the media’s job – to be thinking about it. On the first day I guess there was a bit of ‘You know, a 65 – well, let the old geezer have his day in the sun…’ The second day you said ‘well, that’s okay, that’s okay…’. And now today you all perk up and you say ‘Hey, this old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament after all...’ It’s kind of like Greg Norman last year. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know one thing. I feel good about what I did today. I feel good about my game plan. And who knows, it might happen.”
One irony that spices up the prospect of a Watson win is that the R&A have just introduced a regulation limiting the age of Open invitations to 60. This would mean that were Watson to take the trophy he would only just squeeze in under the limit and be allowed to come back and defend it. Other former winners would no longer be exempt from qualifying.
Watson clearly feels that 60 is too early for the cut-off: “I guess I’ve laid the gauntlet down for you media people to ask Peter Dawson to look again at the 60-year old limitation. I will play next year, may the Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise…”
The final outcome of Day 3 is a scoreboard that is as tight as anything that has been seen in a Major for many a long year. There are literally dozens of players who will go to sleep on Saturday night thinking that they have a genuine shot at this one.
Asked if the situation was one in which experience might play a key role, Jim Furyk shrewdly noted that this might apply in the case of a head-to-head between a single veteran and a single rookie. But this is a case where many players will be in the mix, and it is unlikely to come down to a pitched battle between a single pairing.
On the basis of the lowest score that has been posted at Turnberry so far this week – Jiminez’ 64 in the first round – twenty-six players are certainly in the frame. But others further back will be harboring hopes as well.
Ten years ago Scotland’s Paul Lawrie came back from a deficit of ten shots on the final day to win the 1999 Open at Carnoustie. It is hard to see a repeat of anything as dramatic as that – it is simply too difficult to shoot a really low score over this Turnberry course. But depending on how the wind blows and when, a lucky golfer from the early starters who enjoys one golden day of golf might just post a clubhouse score that will be hard to match.
The more likely scenario is that the title will be fought out to the wire among those who are already sitting somewhere around the top of the leaderboard. Can Tom Watson really turn the clock back 32 years, and repeat his 1977 Open win at Turnberry?
In doing so he would become the oldest man to win a Major by some eleven years, and he leads a growing number of believers who are convinced that he can do just that.
206 – Tom Watson (USA)
207 – Mathew Goggin (Aus); Ross Fisher (Eng)
208 – Retief Goosen (RSA); Lee Westwood (Eng)
209 – Jim Furyk (USA); Stewart Cink (USA)
210 – Bryce Molder (USA); Thongchai Jaidee (Thai)
211 – Richard Johnson (Swe); Boo Weekley (USA); Angel Cabrera (Arg); Steve Marino (USA);
Thirteen players on 212
(China.org.cn July 19, 2009)