By Steve Douglas, Associated Press
GULLANE, Scotland -- They lined up four rows deep, craning their necks for a glimpse of Nick Faldo, Tom Watson and Fred Couples walking onto the first tee at the Open Championship.
Turns out a few other older players grabbed the attention Thursday at Muirfield.
By the time Faldo, Watson and Couples trudged off the 18th green with a combined score of 16 over par, Todd Hamilton was already in the clubhouse with a 2-under 69. Then came Mark O'Meara, who wound up a shot off the lead with a 67. Tom Lehman chipped in with a 68.
All former Open champions. All with plenty of links knowledge and experience.
"One for the old farts," O'Meara said.
With 49-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez also shooting a 68, the leaderboard was starting to have the look of a seniors' competition.
Darren Clarke in 2011 and Ernie Els last year showed that age should be no barrier at the Open. Both were 42 when they lifted the claret jug. O'Meara, Lehman and Hamilton are taking it to a whole new level, though, as they seek a second title on the British links.
When the Royal & Ancient chose to add Couples to the group with six-time major winner Faldo and eight-time major champion Watson, O'Meara might have wondered why he was being overlooked -- again.
He has yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He's still waiting for the captaincy of the U.S. Presidents Cup team. Despite two major championships -- one more than Couples, the 1992 Masters champion -- 24 wins around the world, five Ryder Cup teams and trophies collected from five continents, O'Meara is used to feeling left out.
So he's letting his golf do the talking this week.
The 1998 Open champion at Royal Birkdale curled in a 35-foot eagle putt at No. 17 to cap a round that reached its height at the ninth hole when he moved to 5 under.
"I realize I'm 56 but I also realize that I've won the Open Championship and I know that links golf is a little bit different than playing in the Masters. It's a little bit different than playing in the U.S. Open. It's a little different than a PGA," O'Meara said. "From the standpoint that experience, I think, plays a big factor in how guys play."
At times, O'Meara feels he's playing better than he did 15 years ago.
"I understand I'm not a spring chicken," he added, "or I may not putt as good or chip as good or whatever, but the quality of shots that I hit out there today, I would say, `Hey, that's as good as I played when I was in my prime.'"
Another claret jug would surely clinch his place in the Hall of Fame.
Hamilton is not quite as confident about his chances of staying the course this week. When asked to describe the state of his game since winning the Open at Troon in 2004, he took his time before choosing one word: Terrible.
"I try not to reflect on it," said the 47-year-old Hamilton, who hasn't had a victory since beating Ernie Els in a playoff nine years ago. "It's been trying, I guess. There've been days where I didn't want to play."
The 54-year-old Lehman, who won the Open at Lytham in 1996, rounded off the trio of unlikely American contenders after finishing birdie-birdie in the group after O'Meara.
If any of them go on to win on Sunday, they would become the oldest Open champion -- taking the record of Old Tom Morris (46 years, 99 days) from 1867.
The Faldo-Watson-Couples group maintained its loyal following but never caught fire.
Faldo barely plays nowadays -- his time is filled up with television commentary as well as charity work with the youth series that bears his name -- and was taking part in his first Open in three years at a course where he won in 1987 and 1992.
Pacing backward and forward, and frantically making practice swings as he looked up the narrow fairway on the first hole, he was a bag of nerves.
"It was scary going to that first tee," Faldo said, shaking his head as if recalling a nightmare.
After steadying himself, he planted his drive in the middle of the fairway -- just like the old days -- the ball eventually dribbling down to the light rough. It proved to be the highlight of his round: He went on to shoot 79 on his 56th birthday.
Watson and Couples joined Sir Nick on his trip down memory lane with 75s.
Faldo doesn't know whether Friday's second round will be his last competitive 18 holes. He knows he won't be competing at next year's Open at Royal Liverpool but isn't ruling out St. Andrews in 2015 just yet.
"Who knows? It wouldn't be such a bad idea coming out at 60 just to keep yourself fit," Faldo said. "I've got to pace myself. Come on, guys. This is one tournament in the last three years. Steady on. One in a row."