Watson’s game plan has him on verge of history

Thomas Sturges Watson flashed that ageless Huckleberry Finn smile of his when he was asked if he was pinching himself.

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“I don’t need to,” he said, “I’m awake.”

And so he was, making two late birdies to take an improbable 1-shot lead into Sunday’s final round of the 138th Open Championship.

But are we awake?

How can this not all be a dream?

Are we really to believe that a man can win the 2009 British Open when he was born in the 1940s, in the same year Harry Truman was inaugurated, the NATO alliance was formed, Mao turned China Red, George Orwell’s 1984 was published, NASCAR was born and Hopalong Cassidy made its debut on a medium called television?

Maybe that’s the difference between us and Tom.

Where we hope for a fairytale ending — and, be sure, this would be the greatest accomplishment in the long history of golf — Tom really believes.

He’s said all along that he felt he could win this tournament. The man’s won eight majors, so perhaps he’s got a clue.

He’s also said repeatedly that he senses a spiritual symmetry working for him here, on these beautiful links by the Irish Sea where he famously beat the best of Jack Nicklaus in 1977 and shot 64 on the final day to win the Senior British Open six years ago.

“The first day here, yeah, let the old geezer have his day in the sun, you know, (shoot) 65,” Watson told the media of the chronology of this astonishing tournament. “The second day you said, well, that’s okay and then now today you kind of perk up your ears and say, this old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament.”

Watson’s always been a man given to sentimentality.

He cried like a baby when he sat alongside Jack Nicklaus on the Swilken Bridge at the cathedral that is St. Andrews four years ago. It would be Jack’s last British Open and Watson, his adversary for so many years, treated it like a funeral. It was Nicklaus, whose Scandanavian stoicism keeps his eyes dry in moments like these, who had to tell Watson to pull himself together and finish the last hole and make the cut, both of which Watson did.

As an aside, if he wins Sunday, next year — when the Open returns to St Andrews — won’t be his swan song because he will receive a 10-year exemption.

But can he keep his eyes dry for 18 holes?

He couldn’t do it Saturday. On the 18th fairway, after hitting onto the green, he turned to his caddie, the Democratic political consultant Neil Oxman, and brought up their friend — Watson’s late caddie, Bruce Edwards, who passed away from complications associated with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“Bruce is with us today,” Watson told Oxman. “He said, ‘Don’t make me cry’. So he started crying and I started crying.”

But Watson’s emotionality hasn’t hampered him. It’s fueled him because he’s so far blended it with what he calls his game plan.

Watson never had battle plans in his younger years, preferring to play one hole at a time, but he borrowed a leaf from the Nicklaus book in adopting one for the final 36 holes at Turnberry.

He’s given himself targets, so many birdies and so many bogeys.

“I’m actually kind of on course with that game plan,” he said, “So maybe Jack had it right. Making a game plan helps.

“The other thing that helped me was I think that for some reason today I just didn’t feel real nervous out there. I felt, I guess, serene. It was a day that even though I messed up a couple of times, I didn’t let that bother me. It’s just part of the game and I made up for it coming in again.”

If he indeed gets to keep the Claret Jug for another year, Watson will look with fondness at the last three holes. He’s played them nine times and is five under par on them. He’s one over par on the rest of the course.

And he’ll look back fondly at his putter. It was the club which really derailed his career in the 1980s, when four footers became the darkest of evils, but this week it’s brought him joy from all kinds of distances.

“Every now and again it works. It’s just every now and again and, boy, is it working at the right time right now,” he said.

What’s even more amazing than Watson at 59 with a 1-shot lead going into the last day at Turnberry is the fact that he had his hip replaced nine months ago — couldn’t swing a club for almost three months after — and that his last competitive round was at the, wait for it, Watson Challenge in his native Kansas City a month ago.

If Watson got an assist Saturday it was that he will be paired Sunday with the journeyman Australian Matthew Goggin, who’s never been this close to winning a major, rather than, say, an ice man like Retief Goosen or Jim Furyk.

Goggin said Saturday his biggest previous British Open highlight was being paired with Watson at Royal St. Georges, six years ago.

“He’s such a great player and such a great champion,” the Tasmanian said, “It was also shocking just how good he was. I mean, it was ridiculous. I played with him and I’m thinking, you know, he’s getting on in years and not playing so much and he’s just smashing it around this golf course. I was really impressed.”

It can’t hurt him if the guy next to him in the final group’s in awe.

Whatever, Watson says he won’t be nervous. He’s too long in the tooth.

“I feel like my nerves are too well fried to feel them,” he said. “I mean, come on. Let’s just go with what I’ve got.”