OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. Tom Watson felt like a kid again, leaping as high as his 53-year-old body allowed, charging up the leaderboard at the U.S. Open with magical shots that brought Olympia Fields to life.
As he walked up the final fairway to a thunderous ovation, his eyes glistening and a lump in his throat, Watson looked over at Bruce Edwards, his dying caddie who was fighting back tears of his own.
That's what made Thursday so special.
Not the 40-foot birdie putt that defied gravity until it dropped for a dramatic birdie.
Not the 5-under 65, matching his best score in 104 previous rounds at the U.S. Open and giving him a share of the lead with Brett Quigley.
''You can only imagine,'' Watson said. ''Put yourself in Bruce's situation and my situation, what it means to do well at this late stage in your life, playing in the tournament you want to win the most,'' Watson said.
''If I shoot 90 tomorrow, I don't care.''
With a round for the ages, Watson gave the U.S. Open a major championship feel that had been missing until his spectacular charge.
''He is some kind of golfer, let me tell you,'' said Edwards, the words seeping from his mouth because of Lou Gehrig's disease, an insidious infliction with no known cure.
An otherside drab day was saved by a putt not even Watson thought would go in.
The ball hung on the lip, teasing Watson as he walked briskly to the hole. It suddenly disappeared, and Watson leapt and kicked up his leg, raised his arms and bowed to a delirious gallery that was just getting warmed up.
He followed that with a 20-foot birdie putt that rammed into the back of the cup, just like the Watson of old, and closed out his memorable day with a 6-footer for par.
''Who would have thought?'' Watson said, his gapped-tooth smile as big as ever. ''Who would have expected I would have shot a round like that today?''
Everyone figured it would have come from defending champion Tiger Woods, who tiptoed around Olympia Fields in the cool, damp morning for a pedestrian score of even-par 70.
Until Watson came along, the leaderboard was littered with names usually seen at the John Deere Classic, not the toughest test in golf.
Quigley has been to PGA Tour qualifying school more times than the U.S. Open, but he played with gusto on the back nine seven consecutive one-putt greens for a 65 and a share of the lead.
Justin Leonard and Jay Don Blake were another stroke back, part of the two dozen players who broke par on the easiest first day of scoring in 10 years at the U.S. Open.
Nearly one-third of the field was at par or better, the only two rounds in the 80s belonged to 51-year-old Don Pooley and 16-year-old Tom Glissmeyer.
''This is the type of course where anyone can win, from Fred Funk to Tiger Woods,'' said Robert Allenby of Australia.
Throw Watson into the mix.
Along with the birdie putt that eventually fell, Watson holed a 6-iron from 170 yards on the tough 12th hole. It was pure magic, his best in the U.S. Open since a 65 in the second round at Olympic Club in 1987.
Walking to the ninth green, the crowd saluted him with three standing ovations.
''The body was a little stiff today; the back was a little sore,'' Watson said. ''But the magic was still there with the putter.''
Making it even more emotional was having Edwards at his side, his body weakened but his spirits as strong as ever.
They have been together for the better part of 30 years and Watson's eight major championships, the last one coming 20 years ago.
Watson's only other U.S. Open title came in 1982 at Pebble Beach, when he chipped in for birdie from off the 17th green to beat Jack Nicklaus.
Whether he can sustain this for three more days remains to be seen, although Watson has history on his side. The USGA gave Watson a special exemption to play at Olympia Fields, where he played in his first PGA Tour event as an amateur at the 1968 Western Open and made the cut.
The last player to win the U.S. Open after getting a special exemption was Hale Irwin at Medinah in 1990 which is also the last time this championship was held outside Chicago.
''Did I come here to win? I came here to play my best,'' Watson said.
So did everyone else, it seems.
As expected, this U.S. Open was shaping up to be truly open.
There was a mixture of power players and guys who rely on precision, and most of them found some unusual circumstances for a U.S. Open greens that were firm, but still receptive to shots hit out of the 4-inch rough.
''I'm not saying it's Bob Hope-easy or John Deere-easy. It's all relative,'' Kevin Sutherland said after a 71. ''But it's the easiest U.S. Open I've ever played.''
Perhaps Cliff Kresge summed it up best after his 69.
''I compare it to the Hershey Open,'' Kresge said, referring to a tournament he won last year on the Nationwide Tour.
Don't tell that to Woods, who played cautiously and conservatively, aiming away from the flags and getting only a few looks at birdie. He was headed for a round over par until hitting a 3-iron from 237 yards that stopped 20 feet away. He holed that for eagle.
British Open champion Ernie Els, playing in the same group with Woods and U.S. Amateur champion Ricky Barnes, had a bogey-free 69. Barnes had a 71.
''You guys may think it's easy because guys are shooting under par, but it's not trust me,'' Woods said. ''All it takes is a couple of errant shots.''
Watson didn't have many of those.
His only bogey came on his first hole, the par-4 10th, but he atoned for that with his eagle from the 12th fairway.
The real drama came on the par-3 seventh, when Watson's 40-foot birdie putt slowed as it got to the cup and hung on the lip then disappeared to a cheer that drowned out the commuter trains next to Olympia Fields.
''What that ball fell in, that was something special,'' Watson said. ''It stopped short and people were groaning. I'm walking up to it and said, 'That is so close, how could it not be in?' And then, hey, it went in.''
On a day like this, how could it not?
Peninsula Clarion ©2014. All Rights Reserved.