Tom Watson repelled all comers to retain the lead at The Open in Saturday’s third round as he honed in on becoming, at 59, the oldest player to win a major.
The US living legend ended a dramatic day’s play were he began it, atop the leaderboard, at four-under after a battling round of 71.
That left him one stroke clear of Mathew Goggin of Australia (69) and Ross Fisher of England (70), with Lee Westwood of England (70) and Retief Goosen of South Africa (71) tied for fourth a further stroke back at two-under.
Americans Jim Furyk (70) and Stewart Cink (71) were the only other players under par.
It was a fascinating day of links golf at its very best. The sun shone, but the beautiful Ayrshire layout was defended by a stiff seaside breeze, while punitive rough and tough pin placings made the par of 70 an excellent score.
One by one they tried to dislodge Watson from the lead and one by one the hugely popular veteran held them off, calling on the vast experience gained from having played 109 previous rounds in this his 32nd Open.
Watson, who won the last of his five Opens 26 years ago at Birkdale, scrambled magnificently to stay under par on the front nine until he failed to get up and down from a bunker at the ninth.
He dropped another one by missing an eight-footer on the tough 12th, allowing 35-year-old Goggin, who only made the field from the alternate list, and Westwood to draw level with him at three-under.
The US-based Tasmanian finished off his one-under 69, but Westwood dropped a shot at the last after fluffing his third shot from thick rough.
With the temperature falling sharply, Watson then played a poor chip at the 14th, only to sink another monster putt for par, but he failed to get up and down from a bunker at the 15th to hand Goggin the outright lead at Turnberry.
The 138th Open’s oldest player gathered his forces again though and birdies at the 16th, with a 30-foot putt, and at the 17th, where his eagle putt slipped tantalizingly past, returned him to the top of the leaderboard.
Fisher, meanwhile, birdied the 16th and 17th to join Goggin at three-under.
The day had started with 21 players under par and it ended with just seven, but 26 players were within six shots of the lead, setting the scene for a dramatic final day.
What faces Watson, who won The Open here in 1977 when he defeated Jack Nicklaus in the fabled “Duel in the Sun,” can only be described as the impossible dream — to win a major world sporting event at the advanced age of 59.
That would make him the oldest ever winner of a golfing major, smashing the existing mark set by Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 USPGA title and pulverizing the record for the oldest winner of The Open, currently held by Old Tom Morris, who was 46 when he won back in 1867.
Goggin, who gave up a promising career as a cricketer to concentrate on golf, said that he had drawn inspiration as a youngster from watching compatriots Greg Norman and Ian Baker-Finch winning The Open.
“I felt relaxed and comfortable out there. I’m not too stressed about it. It’s all about managing expectations,” Goggin said.
Westwood, who came close to winning the US Open last year, said that what he had learned on that occasion would stand him in good stead.
“I’ve put myself in position a few times before and I’ve learned from those experiences,” Westwood said.
Earlier, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington had seen his hopes of an historic hat-trick of Open titles bite the dust after a 76 that left him 13 shots off the lead.
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