TURNBERRY // Tom Watson kept the golf media captivated for more than half an hour on the eve of the British Open Championship, reminiscing about his former glories and maintaining that even as he prepares to celebrate his 60th birthday he still has it within him to go searching for a sixth Claret Jug.
It seemed a fanciful notion but nobody accused him of making outrageous claims. Wishful thinking it may have been, but the great man lived up to his word when he made an emotional return to action at his beloved Turnberry to set the early pace with a splendid round of 65. This was the stage for Watson's memorable "Duel in the Sun" with his friend and former rival Jack Nicklaus and it was also the venue for one of his major successes on the seniors tour, so there are few professionals who can claim to have more familiarity with the various nooks and crannies of the Ailsa course.
"Links golf is not played very much so it is a big advantage to have a detailed knowledge of how the course plays," said Watson after the tidiest of bogey-free rounds. Modest as ever, the genial Watson pointed out that Turnberry "was defenceless today" as the breezes of the practice days disappeared. But a host of his counterparts returned to the locker room thinking otherwise as deep rough and punitive bunkers ensured that red figures on the scoreboard remained firmly in the minority.
"I think there was some spirituality out there for me today, just the serenity of it was pretty neat," added the American, who never concedes his love for the various parts of the Scottish coastline which have provided him with four of his five Open triumphs. The forecast is for stronger winds in the concluding round but Watson is in no mood to be blown away. "I'll take my chance in a howling gale if I have to," was his bullish message.
Watson, whose score was eventually matched by another American former Open champion, Ben Curtis, late in the afternoon, was light-hearted about his prospects of going the distance as he did from when overcoming Nicklaus so spectacularly in 1977. "You all want to know how am I going to do the next three rounds, don't you?" he asked. "Well, I don't have a clue what I'm going to do. I wish I could tell you. I wish I could tell you that I'm going to break the Open record and shoot 262, but we'll just see where it comes to."
He certainly does not lack faith in his ability, though. "I feel inspired playing here," he said. "A lot of it has to do with just being here at Turnberry again, just a culmination of a lot of things that have gone on already. "I feel that I'm playing well enough to win the tournament. It doesn't feel a whole lot out of the ordinary from 32 years ago except that I don't have the confidence in my putting as I had 32 years ago.
"But, again, a few of them might go in." Watson waited several hours for company as leader in the clubhouse. Curtis, who stunned the golf world by winning on his major championship debut at Sandwich six years ago, also rolled back the years with a five-under par score which featured an eagle three at the seventh. Curtis came out of the pack to prevail in 2003 but believes he is just as capable a front-runner. "I'd like to think if I was in this position heading into Sunday that I'd be able to handle it well," he said. "But you never know until it happens."