Tom Watson celebrates sinking a 30-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole. The 59-year-old has the lead heading into the final day.
Alastair Grant / AP Enlarge
TURNBERRY, Scotland - Tom Watson took three practice swings without a club in his hand, then looked toward the green and pictured the shot he needed to play.
Standing on the edge of the fairway, a marshal who had seen Watson work his magic at Turnberry for three decades whispered in his thick brogue, lost in time as he watched a 59-year-old champion leading the British Open.
"What are you going to do, Tom?" he said. "Cut a wee 7-iron in there? Throw an 8-iron into the air?"
Then shaking his head with a smile, he added in his Scottish brogue, "Fantastic story, aye?"
Watson is turning this British Open into a fairy tale.
Even as he slipped out of the lead yesterday in the testing breeze off the Firth of Clyde, Watson didn't blink except to hold back the occasional tears. He is close enough to the claret jug to believe he can win again.
A 30-foot birdie putt on the 16th gave him a share of the lead.
Then came a hybrid 2-iron that took a bounce to the left and onto the green, setting up another birdie.
When he walked up the 18th fairway, his name atop the massive yellow leaderboard, Watson had a 1-over 71 for a one-shot lead, leaving him 18 holes away from becoming the oldest major champion in history.
Can this really happen?
Even Watson wasn't sure early in the week. Now, those doubts have morphed into determination.
"The first day here, 'Yeah, let the old geezer have his day in the sun,'•" Watson said. "The second day you said, 'Well, that's OK.' And now today, you kind of perk up your ears and say, 'This old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament.' 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?" he said. "It might happen."
It even got the attention of Jack Nicklaus, whom Watson beat at Turnberry in the famous "Duel in the Sun" epic in 1977. Nicklaus, who rarely watches golf on television, saw most of the third round from his home in south Florida.
"Like everybody else, I had some tears in my eyes," Nicklaus said. "I just really hope he wins."
Watson wouldn't give details of this mysterious "game plan," only that he has figured out how many bogeys he can afford to make and how many birdies he will need to make up for any mistakes.
"So far, it's going well," he said.
The plan has put him at 4-under 206, one shot better than Mathew Goggin of Australia and Ross Fisher, who isn't even sure he will make it to the tee today. His wife is expecting their first child, and Fisher said his priority is to be in England for the birth.
Fisher, who birdied two of his last three holes for a 70, was fifth at the U.S. Open last month, his best finish in a major. Imagine if he had been told that only a 59-year-old man would stand between him and the claret jug.
"Probably would have laughed," Fisher said. "I mean, it's incredible."
Watson will be playing in the final group with Goggin, a 35-year-old who hasn't won in 10 years - and that was on the Nationwide Tour. Until yesterday, when his 69 was among only five scores under par, his greatest moment in the British Open came in 2003 at Royal St. George's when he was paired with Watson in the third round.
"He's such a great player and such a great champion, especially at the British Open," Goggin said. "And it was also shocking just how good he was. I mean, it was ridiculous. I'm thinking, 'He's getting on in years and not playing so much, and he's just smashing it around this golf course. I was really impressed."
A year ago, 53-year-old Greg Norman had a two-shot lead going into the final round at Royal Birkdale and couldn't hold on.
Watson has much more experience with eight majors, five of them on links courses.
He also has much more company.
Lee Westwood (70) joined Fisher as the only players at par or better all three rounds at Turnberry, escaping with a bogey on the final hole to finish at 2-under 208 with two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, who had a 71.
Another U.S. Open champion, Jim Furyk, made only two bogeys in his round of 70 and was at 1-under 209 with Stewart Cink (71).
Steve Marino is still in the mix, somehow.
Tied for the lead with Watson going into the third round, he dropped five shots on his first five holes, rallied to get back into contention, then lost a ball on the par-3 15th to make triple bogey and three-putted at No. 16 for double bogey. He birdied his last two holes of this roller-coaster round and shot 76 to fall five shots behind.
Marino was in the group at 1-over 211 that included Masters champion Angel Cabrera, while another shot back was John Daly (72).
This is Watson's turf, the guy who put Turnberry on the map by winning that wondrous duel with Nicklaus. A victory truly would belong to the game's ages.
The oldest major champion was Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship. The oldest player to win a regular tour event, America or Europe, was Sam Snead at 52 in the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open.
The scope of what's at stake seems lost on Watson. He felt no nerves when he walked to the first tee to warm applause amid sunshine and a cool breeze.
The wind was the toughest of its kind, playing across the fairways, making it difficult to keep the ball in the short grass. Watson ran into trouble during a seven-hole stretch that began at No. 9, dropping three shots to fall out of the lead.
He managed to find two more birdies, the roars getting louder with each one.
Today could hold the biggest roars yet.