Kohler, Wis. - As Tom Watson ambled up a pathway to the sixth tee Friday, a fan leaned over a rope and vociferously let him have it.
"Keep the birdies coming, Tom!" he yelled.
"I'll try," said Watson, flashing that familiar gap-toothed grin.
Watson lived up to his word, draining his eighth birdie on No. 6 - his 15
thhole of the round - to raucous applause and a nine-under score. It mattered little that he'd fail to get up and down two holes later for bogey. Watson had enough gas to get into the clubhouse at Whistling Straits atop the leaderboard after two rounds with a 6-under 66 and 8-under aggregate score.
|Eight birdies helped Tom Watson, on the eighth fairway Friday, bolt into the lead. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)
Watson's round featured 11 one-putts, seven of which fell for birdies. He led first-round leader Eduardo Romero, scheduled to go off in the afternoon, by two strokes.
"It was the Tom Watson of old," said fellow competitor Mark O'Meara (2-under 142). "He was striping balls at pins and making putts. It was fun to watch him. He had that look in his eye, which was nice."
Quipped Watson: "The body doesn't feel like the Tom Watson of old. My legs feel like they're in concrete."
Don't get too worked up just yet. Holding the lead at the midway point of the Senior Open seems to be turning into a rite of passage for the seven-time major winner on the regular tour. He's been in this position the last three years in the championship. However, he can only boast a runner-up finish last year and a T5 in 2005. Both times he walked away somber.
Benign conditions again had The Straits Course as menacing as a toothless tiger. Little wind, even on the holes lining Lake Michigan, affected playability. It also didn't help that rain soaked the course Thursday evening, making greens more receptive to the field being able to stop shots close to flags.
Incidentally, players were able to go at flagsticks more than they normally would if gusty wind wreaked havoc. However, the forecast was calling for winds to pick to the 10-15 mph range in the afternoon.
Usually players find it uncomfortable when a course is playing difficult. Conversely, is Whistling Straits too easy? Could it be more challenging?
"I would like to see that, yeah, make it testy," said Watson.
Whether or not the serene environment was culpable for all the red numbers, the leaderboard started to resemble a financial market correcting itself. Familiar names catapulted up while unknown faces headed south. Loren Roberts closed in on Watson with a workmanlike 3-under 69 to stand three strokes behind. So too were Ben Crenshaw (4-under 67), Champions Tour fixture Des Smyth (3-under 69), and former middling PGA Tour player Lonnie Nielsen (1-under 71).
The same couldn't be said for two-time defending champion Allen Doyle, who had been gunning for an unprecedented third straight title. He likely won't make the cut after firing an 11-over 155 through both rounds. In a show of respect, Roberts and Mike Bell (10-over154) prodded Doyle to walk up the 18
"When everybody was saying three-peat, there's a reason why no one has," said Doyle. "We'll go home with two trophies in the case, and I guess we got to be happy with that."
An eagle three on the par-5 16
thboosted Smyth's round. He cranked a 3-wood to 10 feet of the flagstick before converting the putt. Roberts stayed in contention despite taking an uncharacteristic 30 putts. It wasn't how many he took; rather it had more to do with where the ball is placed on the green. Roberts said the key to staying out of trouble on the Pete Dye design is keeping the ball even with the hole.
Crenshaw, holder of two major titles, registered a double bogey on his first hole but then found a groove. At one point he went on a birdie stretch, nabbing five in a span of eight holes. "There was too much golf left and I was pretty upset," said Crenshaw.
Watson could certainly relate to a birdie-fest en route to taking 26 putts. Starting on No. 14, Watson went into a birdie tizzy. He carded all eight over 11 holes. None of the putts were longer than 12 feet.
Always the poster-face for modesty, Watson said scoring "was there for the taking" but didn't feel entirely in his element. He said he was often guessing on the nine-year-old course, calling it an unknown entity. But if he does figure it out, the field might be in trouble. Still, Watson's performance left the chasers unemotional.
"Tom Watson doesn't surprise me when he plays well," said Roberts. "For him, it's a matter of making putts and obviously he made some putts today."
"Well, once a great player, always a great player," said Smyth of Watson. "I mean, Tom Watson just always plays great golf, always did all his life. That's nothing new."
No, it's not. But winning a Senior Open would be a new experience for Watson if he can hold on. That would be the only thing that to placate Watson, of course, this weekend.
"Yeah, it would be nice to not finish second again and come back with a beautiful trophy," said Watson. "It sure would."
Ken Klavon is the USGA Web Editor. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.