Wednesday 22 November 2017

Vintage Couples steals limelight

Veteran's wonderful display revives memories of British Open and leaves Woods in the shade

First-round leader Fred Couples hits his tee shot on the 17th hole on his way to a six-under-par 66 at Augusta National. Photo: Getty Images
First-round leader Fred Couples hits his tee shot on the 17th hole on his way to a six-under-par 66 at Augusta National. Photo: Getty Images

Karl MacGinty

CALL it destiny, irony or just coincidence. There was something almost mystical about events at Augusta National yesterday.

As Tiger Woods hit the tee shot watched all around the world, Tom Watson, aged 60 and an outspoken critic of Woods during his winter of discontent, was completing one of the most remarkable rounds in recent memory at the US Masters.

Thousands packed around the first tee had noisily saluted Tiger's opening drive, but this accolade was tame by comparison with the throaty roar which, minutes later, greeted the five-foot birdie putt Watson sank at 18 for 67 and a share of the clubhouse lead on five-under-par.


If Watson had warmed hearts around the world of golf by going within one stroke of victory of last summer's British Open championship at Turnberry, yesterday's effort, his best round at the Masters in 20 years, was even more astonishing.

And echoes of that remarkable week at Turnberry wafted over Augusta as England's Lee Westwood, one of his closest rivals at the British Open, joined Watson at the top of the leaderboard with a splendid 67 of his own.

After several weeks in which his thoughts plainly were dominated by his wife Amy's ongoing battle with breast cancer, two-times Masters champion Phil Mickelson found his best form at just the right time to also shoot 67, which included an eagle-three at 13. and Tiger's Korean conqueror at last year's US PGA championship, YE Yang, was another to match this score.

A five-times winner at the British Open, Watson knows how to play at the seaside where strategy and shot-making regularly outweigh raw power. Yet men in their 60s are not supposed to be able to hit the golf ball far enough to tame Augusta National like this.

The clubs they have to play into some of the most demanding putting surfaces in golf usually prevent them from getting it close enough to make many birdies. But that ageist formula for failure falls down when someone strikes the ball as sweetly as Watson does with his irons, long or short, and when the pins at Augusta are placed, as they were yesterday, to encourage low scoring and tees were pushed up with an approaching storm in mind.

Yet Watson also played flawlessly, digging deep into a memory bank which includes Masters victories in 1977, when he shot 67 on Sunday to win, and 1981, the birdie train starting when he sank a 30-footer at the first, followed by four more at the third, 15th, 16th and that final hole.

He was just as pleased "to get up and down six times in the middle of the round," adding with a glint in the eye: "That was the Watson of old."

The most notable of those par saves came at 12, in the middle of Amen Corner, where he said he "pulled a Freddie Couples, chipping it dead after my ball somehow held up on the bank over the water".

"It was a very satisfying round," the venerable champion continued, "made even more so because my son Michael is caddying for me here this week. I really wanted to go out and play well for him."

The week had gotten off to a wonderful start during a practice round last Sunday afternoon when Michael Watson proposed to his girlfriend at Amen Corner. Yet when he urged his father, "Come on dad, show me you can still play this golf game", Michael really helped rekindle what Watson would describe as "that Turnberry glow."

Watson admitted he'd allow himself to think negative thoughts about his prospects of doing well at Augusta in recent years, saying the course was too long for him as he missed the cut on his last eight visits to the Masters and played at the weekend only twice since 1996.

He hadn't broken 70 since 1997, but with the course playing the way it did yesterday, "experience was a factor, of course it was, in terms of knowing how to deal with the wind and in placing the ball." The first sight Masters patrons would have caught yesterday morning was of him standing on a stool close to the first tee watching "my good friends" Arnie Palmer and Jack Nicklaus play the first tee shots of the 2010 tournament as honorary starters.

Of course, Watson rates up there with Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player in the hierarchy of world golf, so people sat up and took note when he tore a strip off Tiger, saying he would need to modify his behaviour on the course when he returned to golf.

Watson lambasted Tiger for his spitting, bad language and other poor behaviour, but was one of the first to welcome Woods back at Augusta this week and applaud the world No 1 for his stated intent to be less angry and more responsive to fans on the course.

As Watson, Westwood and many other of yesterday's early starters made plenty of birdies, Graeme McDowell needed to draw on all his experience at the Majors to be able to bounce back from a nightmare start and land three birdies in the final six holes.

"Give me that start five years ago and I'd probably have shot 80 around here," said McDowell, shortly after signing for a first-round 75 made infinitely more palatable by sweet birdies at the par five 13th, the short 16th and at 18, after he'd left himself a three-foot tap-in after an exquisite eight-iron approach.

How different this was from his opening seven holes, which McDowell played in four-over after double-bogeys at four and seven. After starting brightly, two-putting from the front of the green for birdie at the par-five second, he pushed a poor tee shot into the front bunker at the testing par-three third and three-putted after his escape had rolled down the incline at the front of the green to about 30 feet.

Another poor swing at the par-three sixth left his ball more than 50 feet away from the hole. McDowell's lag putt was good, but he pushed the ensuing three-footer past the cup and, plainly, was still smarting on the next tee as he pulled his drive left and into the trees.

Critically, McDowell was a little too ambitious with his second shot, advancing his ball just 30 yards and so deep into trouble his only means of escape was to hit towards the third tee. From there, he'd chip over a greenside bunker and two-putt for a double-bogey six.

It really took guts to come back from that, but McDowell proved his resilience here last year when he was Europe's top finisher in a tie for 17th.

Live, BBC 2 and Setanta Ireland, from 9.0

Irish Independent

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