Watson in the swing, as usual

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

TURNBERRY, Scotland – With every perfect stroke down the fairway, the fantastical notion that a man months away from his 60th birthday can really compete with golf's elite becomes somewhat easier to digest.

Major championships have a lovely habit of throwing up feelgood storylines in their early days, keeping us occupied, before making way for the serious business of the weekend battle for the trophy.

Tom Watson's Turnberry tale is the story that just won't go away. And as one of golf's greats continued to confound common sense on Saturday, ensuring an overnight lead heading into the final 18 holes, no one wanted it to.

Suddenly it is a serious question: Can Watson really pull off the impossible here?

The answer remains probably not, as opposed to previous incarnations of "don't be stupid" or raucous laughter. The obstacles stacking up against him are obvious – his age and the lack of regular competition on the PGA Tour.

But if Watson's Sunday rivals are waiting for that compact swing to fall apart, they shouldn't bother. It is a motion that has scarcely changed for 35 years, surviving a hip replacement and an era where the temptation to enlist a tinkering swing doctor is so irresistible to many.

It still has a fluidity that would be impossible if Watson were not in outstanding physical shape for a man of his age. If, as most predict, his challenge for the claret jug withers on championship Sunday, it is more likely to fade gradually than collapse in a heap of shanks and warped physics.

Yet one thing is for certain: There won't be any fear of success, not from a man who has won this event five times and the senior version thrice.

Indeed, it is not often that a player steps onto the 72nd tee to be greeted by a hole named in his honor. The Duel in the Sun is titled in deference to Watson's 1977 British Open victory in a final day epic with Jack Nicklaus, when he vanquished the Golden Bear by a single shot.

His legacy from this tournament, his gift to golf, may not be an astonishing victory but a series of powerful lessons to a younger generation. Every hole, every putt, every minute that he remained in contention on Saturday added to the sense that there is so much today's players could learn from him.

In this most stressful of environs, he claims to have found a greater serenity than ever before.

There is a value in going with the flow in this most unpredictable of games, one which Watson says he learned mid-career. He feels at home here in Scotland, familiar with the people, and has an old friend, political expert Neil Oxman, on the bag. He is at peace.

It is fair to say that the golfing world, and Britain in particular, have been charmed by this 59-year-old's fairytale. The game of golf only rarely lacks in chivalry, even in these hyper-competitive days, but the extent of Watson's gentlemanly nature is a welcome throwback to a more innocent time.

When playing partner Steve Marino stuffed his tee shot on 15 into no-man's-land to the right of the green, Watson ushered spectators inside the ropes to help search for his playing partner's ball and even joined in the ultimately successful hunt himself.

Perhaps it is easy to be classy after a life and career filled with success and fortune. Yet it was always like this with Watson, a gentleman on the course and one of the finest ambassadors the game has ever had.

His one-over round of 71 on Saturday, leaving him a shot clear at four-under, was again laced with good humor and a positive disposition.

Matthew Goggin, the journeyman Australian whose superb and energetic round of 69 put him a shot back, fondly remembers a round he played with Watson at the 2003 British Open at Royal St George's.

"That was the highlight of the British Open for me," said Goggin. "It was shocking how good he was. It was ridiculous.

"I was playing with him and thinking how he is getting on in years and not playing so much, and he was just smashing it around this golf course. I was really impressed, he was really good to me and it was a great experience."

On Sunday they will meet again, in the final group, with the British Open up for grabs.

So how is Watson doing it? Is it luck, the stars aligning for a favored son?

Part of it is down to the links, Turnberry's roguish design providing examinations that make no compensation for youth or brute force. Unlike on most PGA Tour courses, where younger and stronger men can swat away the old guard (with Kenny Perry a unique exception), the coast of west Scotland is a powerful equalizer.

Watson is still significantly shorter; Marino out-bombed him by up to 100 yards at a time on Saturday, but he has his cunning, his knowledge and that mischievous sparkle behind the eyes.

His expression details his delight in the shock and awe the galleries take in seeing an old man compete with those young enough to be his grandchildren. But it is a knowing smile, one which holds the thought that for more than any other man in the field, this course holds few surprises he hasn't already uncovered.

Back in Watson's day, working the ball around was a staple part of golf, a necessity in the era before the technological revolution that made the sport and science such common bedfellows.

It is an art that has been sidelined in the pursuit of distance, yet one that still matters on courses and in conditions such as these. All week, Watson has given a dissertation on it.

Greg Norman's performance at Birkdale 12 months ago proved that craft and creativity could still reap rewards, as the Great White Shark led the tournament heading into Sunday's back nine.

Norman's challenge finally faltered, left behind in the slipstream of Padraig Harrington's devastating late charge. A similar fate could befall Watson, yet the look he gave as he left the 18th green after the third round was more than that of a man enjoying the thrill of turning back the clock.

It was the glance of a man with championship blood still coursing through his veins, a man who fancies facing The Duel in the Sun once more, with everything on the line.

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