TURNBERRY, Scotland – In one unforgettable hour, as nostalgia gave way to disbelief, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods walked off the 18th green at Turnberry headed in opposite directions few could have imagined.
The oldest player at the British Open was leading.
The best player was leaving.
Even a tournament that has been around for 149 years can still serve up a shocker or two.
“It’s as if the spirits are on my side,” said Watson, a 59-year-old wonder who made history Friday afternoon as the oldest player to lead a major championship.
“Kept making mistake after mistake,” said Woods, the No. 1 player in the world.
Watson played his best golf on the toughest stretch at Turnberry, then finished with a pair of birdie putts that were nearly as long as his odds of winning another claret jug. The last one was a 45-footer on the 18th that gave him an even-par 70, putting him in the lead with British Open rookie Steve Marino, who had a 68.
Woods came through an hour later, and was at his worst.
He hit one tee shot that was never found in the high grass along the dunes right of the 10th fairway. He hit into a fairway bunker for the first time all week. It took him two shots to get up a bank and onto the green.
Woods dropped seven shots during that wretched six-hole stretch, and not even two late birdies could spare him the indignation of missing the cut in a major for only the second time in his professional career, and the first time in any tournament in more than three years. Needing to chip in for birdie on the 18th hole, he came up a few feet short and tapped in for a 74.
“I kept compounding my problems out there,” he said.
Forget about Woods’ pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors.
Now it’s about Watson going after Harry Vardon and his six British Opens.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could win,” Watson said.
He was at 5-under 135 with Marino, a 29-year-old American who didn’t know until last weekend that he had been admitted into the British Open, and then had to fly his father from Virginia to his home in Florida to fetch Marino’s passport.
“I wasn’t even expecting to play in this tournament,” Marino said.
One year after Greg Norman made a stunning bid to win the British Open at 53, the prospects of Watson winning at 59 are staggering. The oldest major champion was Julius Boros, who was 48 when he captured the 1968 PGA Championship.
Watson won his first of his five British Opens at Carnoustie in 1975, five months before Woods was born.
“I guess the memories are with me, all the wonderful memories I’ve had playing links golf,” Watson said. “Walking down the fairways, walking up onto the greens, people showing their respect for me, showing my respect for them. And it’s been since 1975 – 34 years I’ve played links golf. And it’s a fabric of my life, I can tell you that.”
He is only halfway home, however, and this British Open is alive with so many possibilities.
One shot behind was 49-year-old Mark Calcavecchia, who won 20 years ago up the coast at Royal Troon. He, too, survived the stretch of holes along the Firth of Clyde in a stiff wind that demanded so much of every shot. Calcavecchia made a 40-foot birdie putt on the 10th that sent him to a 69.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen twice saved par from 35 feet and had a 70, putting him in the group at 3-under 137 that included three-time major champion Vijay Singh.
Thirteen players were separated by three shots.
Watson had hip surgery only nine months ago, but there was a spring in his step even as it seemed though he would fade quickly. The wind stirred up white caps in the Irish Sea, and Turnberry turned into a fierce test. Watson bogeyed four straight holes along the coast, yet showed the patience of an eight-time major winner.
“Lady Turnberry took off her gloves today and she had some teeth,” Watson said. “I knew the outgoing nine was going to be tough. But I never gave up hope, because I knew that the incoming nine was going to play a little bit easier going downwind.”
Watson holed a 25-foot birdie on the ninth to get back in the mix, then delivered more magic.
First came a 75-foot birdie putt from the back of the 16th green, a scary putt with the burn guarding the front. He raised his arms and kissed the ball. He saved even more emotion for his final putt on the 18th.
Watson watched it catch the corner of the cup, kicked his right leg – “That was my Scottish jig,” he said – and then offered an abbreviated bow.
“He hung tough,” said Sergio Garcia, who played alongside Watson. “He showed me how much he loves this game.”
Also in their group was 16-year-old Matteo Manassero of Italy, the British Amateur champion, who rolled in enough big putts of his own for a 70 that made him the second-youngest player to make the cut at the British Open. He was at 141, six shots behind.
It was quite a change from the opening round, when 50 players broke par. In all the elements – clouds, wind, an hour of rain and sunshine – only seven players shot in the 60s on Friday.
Woods failed to make the cut for only the sixth time in his career, and the first since the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, his first tournament after his father died.
He was leaving far sooner than anyone expected.