TURNBERRY, Scotland — Tom Watson, famous for winning the “Duel in the Sun” that forever links him with Turnberry, is at the stage in his career where the British Open should be a ceremonial stroll into the sunset.
This is the era of Tiger Woods and the title defence of Padraig Harrington.
Yet at age 59, with wrinkles framing his gap-tooth grin, Watson poured in birdie after birdie, reviving his spiritual connection on Scottish links with a bogey-free round of 5-under 65.
“There’s certain shots on the golf course that I remember how to play,” Watson said.
His name was atop the leaderboard Thursday for six hours, giving Turnberry the buzz that Woods couldn’t deliver, until Miguel Angel Jimenez came through with a 66-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a 64 and his first lead in a major.
Even then, the 45-year-old Spaniard knew the moment belonged to Watson.
“What a legend,” Jimenez said.
Watson might have been the only one who saw this coming.
He said two weeks ago that his primary objective was to play well to “compete against the kids,” some of whom weren’t even born when he won his epic duel against Jack Nicklaus in 1977.
Watson, though, couldn’t help but embrace the memories himself on the eve of the British Open. He told of receiving a text message from Nicklaus’ wife, Barbara, wishing him luck at Turnberry.
“I texted her back and said, ’You know, we really miss you over here,”’ Watson said. “And I really meant it. It’s not the same without Jack playing in the tournament.”
At times, it sure looked the same.
Dressed in an argyle sweater, Watson fired a 9-iron into eight feet for a birdie on the opening hole. He dropped in another birdie from 20 feet on the 489-yard third hole, and never backed off.
In surprisingly still conditions, he made it around Turnberry without a bogey, holing a six-foot par putt on the last hole.
“I can still beat this golf course somehow,” Watson said.
Jimenez also played bogey-free and finished strong.
He lashed a 5-wood onto the green at the par-5 17th for a two-putt birdie from 65 feet, then rolled in a birdie putt on the 18th from just off the front of the green.
“Since I woke up this morning, you can see through the window and you look at the sea, it looked like a pond. So nice, so calm,” Jimenez said. “You can’t ask a better day to play golf. It took care of me.”
Ben Curtis, who like Watson won the British Open in his first try in 2003 at Royal St. George’s, had four birdies over his last six holes for a 65. They were joined by Kenichi Kuboya of Japan, who finished birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie from one of the final groups.
Canada’s Mike Weir is in the hunt after 18 holes. The Bright’s Grove, Ont., native carded an eagle on the seventh hole and finished at 3-under, three shots off the lead.
Things didn’t go as well for Calgary’s Stephen Ames, who had a double bogey in his round of 72.
Steve Stricker led the group at 66, and he was among those who was swept up in seeing Watson’s name atop the leaderboard.
“I think if Watson plays the way he played today, he can beat Tiger Woods and everyone else,” Stricker said. “He flushed it today.”
It helped that Turnberry laid down, a rare day along the Ayrshire coast with barely a breeze. Fifty players broke par.
Woods was not among them.
He had as many birdies as clubs thrown in disgust — three — and was still in the mix until a poor chip led to bogey on the 15th. He missed his target by some 40 feet on the 16th, where is ball bounded into the burn.
He had to scramble for bogey and finished with a 71.
Woods was seven shots behind, his largest first-round deficit ever in the British Open.
“I certainly made a few mistakes out there,” Woods said. “Hopefully, tomorrow I can play a little better.”
Harrington, who had missed his last five cuts until winning the Irish PGA last week against a weak field, had a 69. He is trying to become the first player in more than 50 years to win the claret jug three straight times.
Watson sure isn’t feeling his age at the British Open, where he is a five-time champion and stalwart at links golf. Neither are 52-year-old Mark O’Meara and 49-year-old Mark Calcavecchia, former champions who shot 67.
Greg Norman, who had the 54-hole lead at Royal Birkdale last year in a remarkable revival, faded quickly at Turnberry, where he won the British Open in 1986. He didn’t make a birdie until the 17th hole and shot 77.
Norman ceded the stage to Watson, who teased his Scottish following with the crazy notion he could hoist the silver trophy again.
The oldest British Open champion was Old Tom Morris in 1867 at age 46, and Julius Boros is the oldest winner of any major, capturing the 1968 PGA Championship when he was 48.