Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez sunk a monster putt on 18 to take a one shot lead in the British Open on a day when Tom Watson produced a masterclass in links golf seven weeks short of his 60th birthday.
The American, who dominated world golf in the 1970s and 1980s, produced a flawless first round display on the same par-70 Ailsa course on which he defeated Jack Nicklaus in the fabled Duel in the Sun 32 years ago.
Out early on, he was the outright leader for much of the day on five-under 65 before 2003 winner Ben Curtis of the US drew level and then Jimenez went one better with his snaking 60-footer at the last.
Late in the evening Japan’s Kenichi Kuboya closed with an eagle and three birdies in a back nine of 30 to join Watson and Curtis at five under.
Watson was not alone among the old guard to shake off the cobwebs as former Open winners Mark Calcavecchia and Mark O’Meara both returned to the leaderboard in a major at the ages of 49 and 52 respectively.
They comfortably outscored tournament favorite Tiger Woods, who was wayward off the tee as he struggled home with a one-over 71 and was languishing in a tie for 68th position as 50 players ducked under par.
Five-time Open champion Watson had five birdies and no bogeys on his card by the time he sunk a five-footer for par at the last to earn one of the earliest standing ovations ever at an Open.
“I try not to live in the past, but a lot of the kids playing in the tournament were not even born in 1977. Still I have a chance to do well this week,” said Watson, whose last Open triumph was at Birkdale 26 years ago.
Jimenez, no spring chicken himself at 45, went bogey free in his round of 64, closing with birdies in the last two holes before paying tribute to compatriot Seve Ballesteros, who is recovering from brain tumor surgery.
“To see the way he fights and the way he is going forward gives you lots of motivation to do anything in life,” he said.”
Curtis, who shocked the golfing world by winning at Royal St George’s six years ago as an unknown debutant, eagled the seventh and then birdied four of the last six holes to match Watson’s total.
A further stroke back on 66 were a group of six players including Australian John Senden, who only made it into the Open field on Tuesday when India’s Jeev Milkha Singh withdrew with an injury.
Level with him on 66 were Steve Stricker of the US, Camilo Villegas of Colombia, Australia’s Mathew Goggin and American Stewart Cink.
O’Meara and Calcavecchia both carded three-under 67s as they took advantage of the benign conditions.
The 49-year-old Calcavecchia, who will join the seniors tour next year, won his only major at nearby Troon in 1989 and once again seemed inspired by an Ayrshire links.
Playing in the lead group with a 6:30am tee-off time, he went out in one-under 34 and then added birdies at the 11th and 17th to come in with a three-under 67.
“Early does not bother me. I was ready to go at five,” said Calcavecchia, whose wife Brenda was caddying for him.
Alongside the two veteran Americans on three under were nine others including former major winners Mike Weir of Canada, Retief Goosen of South Africa and Jim Furyk of the US.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington struggled at times again, but still came in with a hard-earned 69 to keep alive his hopes of becoming the first golfer since Australian Peter Thomson in 1956 to win three Opens in a row.