Tom Watson is proving that he can still handle the heat, and there was plenty of it to go around Friday afternoon in the second round of the 36th U.S. Senior Open at Del Paso Country Club.
While temperatures once again eclipsed 100 degrees and several players mounted charges up the leader board, Watson didn’t wilt. The eight-time major champion, still seeking the one significant senior title to elude him, followed up his opening 66 with a 1-under 69 to retain a share of the lead at 5-under 135 with two men who have recent wins on their resumées: Jeff Maggert and Peter Fowler.
“I’m really grateful to be where I am,” said Watson, who for the fourth time in 14 starts holds at least a share of the 36-hole lead, but could have held it outright if not for a bogey on the tough par-4 18th. “I don't have the tools in the toolbox I used to have. They're missing. Some of the tools are missing. And so it's getting more and more difficult for me to compete, but I still feel as if I can somehow get it done.”
Maggert, winner of the Champions Tour’s Regions Tradition last month, earned a share of the top spot thanks to five birdies in a row starting on the par-5 15th (his sixth hole of the day), tying the championship record. His 65, on the strength of just 24 putts, equaled the low round of the championship thus far.
Fowler, meanwhile, who won the last two events on the European Senior Tour before arriving at Del Paso, also used a hot putter to card a 66.
Lurking close behind on a bunched up leader board – 19 players are within three shots of the lead – are the likes of defending champion Colin Montgomerie, 2010 U.S. Senior Open champion Bernhard Langer and hometown favorite Kevin Sutherland.
Montgomerie, who successfully defended his Senior PGA Championship title last month, capped his round with a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 9 for a second straight 68. “Yes, here we are again,” Montgomerie said about his penchant for remaining in contention in this championship, having occupied the top 10 after each of the six rounds in which he’s played. “Two 68s is safe. I'll take a couple more of them.”
Joining Montgomerie at 136 is Bart Bryant, who also fired a 65, and Jimmy Carter, who began the championship with 32 holes without a bogey before making one on the par-4 sixth hole. He ended with a 69.
Six players are tied at 137, including Langer, who rallied for a bogey-free 66, and Sutherland, who got home in 69.
Claiming the Francis Ouimet Trophy has proved frustrating for Watson, who has been fifth or better on five occasions with three runner-up finishes. But the Kansas legend, who turns 66 in September, is once again defying his age with the same guile and determination that nearly brought him a sixth British Open title in 2009 at the age of 59.
“I'm driving the ball on the fairway, and I'm putting the ball very well,” Watson said. “I'll tell you, in a U.S. Open, if you drive the ball and putt the ball well, you're probably going to be there if you've got any short game at all.”
“No, not surprising,” said Rocco Mediate, who after shooting 66 climbed into a seven-way tie for 13th place at 2-under 138. “I don't know what else to say about [Watson]. He's got so much control of his golf ball. I watched him play for two days. I saw what was going on. It's like yeah, OK. Him and Hale [Irwin], same way. You're never surprised at what they do. They're just that good. I mean, they've been good their whole careers, and just because they're older now doesn't mean they can't play. They can really still play.”
Maggert’s good play came all of a sudden. After dropping to 2 over par with bogeys on 13 and 14, he caught fire with the birdie run and he ended the day with his eighth birdie of the round.
“I could definitely say I was in a bad attitude at that moment of my round and the tournament,” Maggert, 51, said of his slow start. “I just turned it around with the putter. Fifteen, 16, 17, 18, making birdie on those four holes is pretty good on this golf course, obviously, especially 16, 17, 18. Then made another birdie on No. 1. So in the stretch of about an hour, I went from having a pretty bad attitude to a really good attitude. I just kind of gutted it out after that.”
Playing in only his second Champions Tour event, Fowler, 56, of New Zealand, won the Acorn Jersey Open and the Handa PGA Seniors in his prior two starts, both in Europe.
“Yeah, I've been really happy with my game,” he said. “Best I've putted for 20 years. I've got a new putter, and it's nicely balanced, and it's suited me. Yeah, my good golf started when I qualified for the U.S. Senior Open in Kansas a month ago. It's carried on.”
Earlier Friday, several players, including Sacramento native and Del Paso member Sutherland, climbed to 5 under only to surrender strokes down the stretch. Sutherland double bogeyed his penultimate hole, the par-4 eighth. Scott Dunlap, who had a four-birdie streak, and Kiyoshi Murota, of Japan, also got to 5 under before settling for 3-under 137. Both shot 69.
“If you're not playing on the top of your game and not hitting good shots, you're going to get penalized,” Sutherland said. “Like on No. 8, I got out of position a little bit and I just couldn't get myself – you know, sometimes bogey's a good score, and on that hole I just wasn't able to manage to do it. It shows what can happen if you just get a little out of position. That's what this course is doing right now. That's why the scores are what they are.”
Coming off a six-stroke victory in the Constellation Senior Players Championship, Langer has himself back in position with an impeccable second round. For the second straight day, he employed Del Paso member and former club champion Bobby Siravo as his caddie while Terry Holt, his regular caddie, continues to be sidelined after contracting an infection in his leg from a bug bite.
Siravo, who is the volunteer caddie coordinator this week, caddied one season for Sutherland on the PGA Tour.
“I didn't know what to expect, really, because two hours before your tee time, you're trying to find a caddie. It's not easy,” Langer said. “I was very fortunate to find Bobby. He's a wonderful guy, great gentleman, and we loved being out there together. Had a good time. Obviously, I can't expect him to club me or do any of that, so I get my own yardages. We discuss the putting line and little details on the green here and there, and he's very encouraging. That's really all I need.
Watson thinks a horse race is in the offing for the last 36 holes, and he is not alone. But many eyes will be on the old warrior to see if he can remain near the front of the pack. That includes fellow players.
“It's nice to see Mr. Watson playing well. Hopefully, he can keep up a good week here,” said Maggert, not ashamed to root for the Hall of Famer. “There are a lot of good players on the Champions Tour that we play week in and week out. So the crowded leader board is not that big of a surprise. The golf course is fair, so good players are going to stay near the lead or stay right around par or under par. I don't feel like anyone can really run away with it on this golf course.”
Halfway through this U.S. Senior Open, the drama at Del Paso seems to only be getting started.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work regularly appears on USGA websites.