By Mike Lupica
New York Daily News
Sunday, July 19th 2009, 4:00 AM
Last year it was Greg Norman, at 53, with his chance on the final day to win the British Open, to become the oldest winner of a major golf championship. This is much better now with Tom Watson, much bigger, what would be the biggest golf story of all time if he can win at Turnberry today, 32 years after he won a British Open there the first time. This is a story now that comes out of Scotland and out of golf and reaches out to everybody who cares about sports, who will watch this morning and into the early afternoon to see if Watson, a couple of months short of his 60th birthday, can actually do this. If he can be young again for one more day.
"I have a game plan," he said on ABC when his round Saturday was over, after he had played the last three holes in 2-under to get back the outright lead.
Tom Watson rekindles memories of his 1977 British Open win on same Turnberry course with lead after 54 holes. (Kinnaird/Getty Images)
We will find out if his game plan, and his ball-striking, and the serenity he has shown so far, and the way he has driven and putted at his age will stand up over the last four or five hours at Turnberry. Oldest tournament in the world. Oldest golfer to ever come this close. Know this: If Watson can't close the deal, it won't be because he isn't tough enough.
When Watson was young, he putted the way kids do before they know putting is supposed to be hard. He didn't care how far past the cup he rammed the birdie putts he didn't make, because whether it was six feet or eight feet or even 10 feet coming back, he seemed to make them all.
He made all the putts the rest of us miss.
Until he stopped making them. He stopped making short putts. Watson had the yips, and after a while it was as terrible watching him stand over a 3-footer as it had been once with Ben Hogan. Watson stopped making putts and he stopped winning, even though he could hit the ball like a dream, the way he has so far at Turnberry. He was driving it better than ever and hitting irons as well as he ever had, and he couldn't win.
And Watson stayed in there. He didn't quit, he didn't go to a long putter or a belly putter or a cross-handed grip or the grip known as the "claw." He was still the tough kid from Kansas City who used to beat balls in the winter when no one else was around because he wanted to be great. He would figure this out.
A friend once asked why he didn't go to the belly putter or the long putter that other shaky golfers used, and got the look that Watson used to stare down even Jack Nicklaus with.
"It's not golf," Watson said.
Finally there was the Sunday afternoon at the Memorial, Jack's tournament, when he won again. It had taken nine years. He was 46. Now he is 59 and trying to win a British Open. Suddenly he, and not Tiger Woods, is the golfer the whole world is talking about. Here is what Jack Nicklaus was quoted as saying about his old friend, and old adversary, on Friday night when the questions started coming at Nicklaus from all over the world:
"I'm sure Tom knew he could play well, but perhaps he didn't know if he would play well. Now that he has played well and put himself in position for the next two days, hopefully he will forget his age and remember he is Tom Watson, and Tom Watson knows how to finish."
Then Nicklaus, who had just finished a round of golf at his Bear's Club in Jupiter, Fla., said to his friend Scott Tolley, "I watch very little golf, but I will watch this weekend."
These last 10 years have been a good time for Tom Watson. He is happily remarried. He still plays some senior golf. Every May he still goes fishing with his buddies Tom Devlin, who owns the Flint Hills National Golf Club in Wichita, and Max Moss, a retired veterinarian, at the ranch Watson owns outside Wichita. Barney Adams of Adams Golf is with them, too. They still stop in at the Toots diner outside Wichita for lunch. After dinner sometimes, Watson will still stand up in his living room and give Devlin or Moss a lesson.
Whatever happens today at Turnberry, whether he wins his sixth Claret Jug or not, he has thrilled us all. Only golf gives you a moment like this. We have been conditioned to believe that when Tiger Woods doesn't contend at a major that the tournament doesn't matter, that when he leaves a major early as he did this week, he takes the whole sport with him. Only this time he left us Tom Watson. He was in the lead Thursday night and still tied for the lead with Steve Marino on Friday night. Saturday he rolled in that bomb and nearly eagled No. 17 and barely made an unforced error all day and was at the top of another leaderboard in the British Open.
Another thing Nicklaus said Friday: "I always expect to see Tom Watson's name at the top of the leaderboard."
This is a sports story to make you cheer whether golf is your sport or not. This is what it would have been like for DiMaggio to get one more swing at the old Stadium, or Clyde to get one more chance to throw it to Bradley coming around a screen, or Namath to throw one deep to Maynard one more time at Shea. Watson doesn't play for all the old golfers today. He plays for everybody who dreams about being young again.