The sun may still have been out, but it was a wet finish to the opening round of the £1.35 million Senior Open Championship. First, we had two of the big guns, Tom Watson and Colin Montgomerie, dumping their approaches at the last into the Barry Burn. Then “Aquaman” broke out of the pack (or should that be swam to the surface?) to claim an outright lead at Carnoustie.
That’s the nickname Woody Austin earned after he attempted to play a shot from a lake on the 14th hole at Royal Montreal during the President’s Cup in 2007. “Yes, I’m the goofball that fell face-first in the water,” admitted the 52-year-old after signing for six birdies in a four-under-par 68 to sit one ahead of no less than seven players, with ten others a further shot back on a crowded leaderboard following a day when a wind that seemed to be constantly switching proved troublesome.
We should have known that Kansas-based Austin, a four-time PGA Tour winner and runner-up to Tiger Woods in the 2007 US PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa, can poke fun at himself over that incident. After all, he appeared for the singles the next day with a pair of swimming goggles that he put on walking off the first tee. “People won’t let me hear the end of that,” he continued, smiling. “I hear all the time, ‘stay away from the water; don’t fall in’. Especially if I’m anywhere near a lake, if I’m reading a putt, I’ll hear: “Oh, don’t fall in”.
Now it’s been brought up on this side of the Atlantic, he can surely expect some ribbing from Scottish fans, too. Especially on a course that has more water than most links courses in that dangerous Barry Burn. “I’m used to all that stuff,” insisted Austin. “That’s almost ten years ago. And for people to think that I carry my goggles around with me in my golf bag is pretty crazy.”
His start to this season was pretty crazy, claiming three wins in four events on the Champions Tour. Yet, in his last six events, the Tampa-born player hasn’t been close to getting in the mix. “It seems I forgot how to play after my three wins. It’s been really bad since,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s been a long stretch of real ugliness.”
There was nothing ugly about his opening salvo on the toughest course on the R&A’s rota for the Open Championship. Austin made his score by covering the last eight holes in four-under, having birdied the 11th, 12th, 14th and 16th. He would have been two ahead but for squandering another good chance from eight feet at the last. “The last four holes were the best I played all day and it’s always good to sneak ahead of everybody,” he said.
The seven-strong group breathing down his neck includes 1998 Open champion Mark O’Meara. Maintaining the form that had enabled him to be the oldest player to make the cut at Royal Troon last week, the 59-year-old started with two birdies before making three gains to par in four holes from the 12th. “My passion for The Open and the Senior Open is second to none,” declared O’Meara afterwards. “I love this type of golf. I think it’s the greatest.”
Esteban Toledo, another of the players sitting one off the lead, prepared for this event with a visit last week to East Lothian, where he played at Dunbar and Longniddry among others. “You don’t know if you’re going to get good weather or bad weather in Scotland,” said the Mexican, who won the Allianz Championship on the Champions Tour earlier in the year before caddying for Sandy Lyle at The Masters. “So you’ve got to deal with it.”
Helped by an eagle-3 at the 14th, Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez carded a 70, as did Swede Jesper Parnevik and Stephen Dodd, the Welshman’s effort coming on his Senior debut after he only turned 50 last Friday.
While those wet finishes left three-time winner Watson and Montgomerie having to settle for disappointing 76s, Bernhard Langer is already lurking ominously after a 71. “My target is to keep winning more than anybody else ever has into my 60s,” declared Langer, the champion here in 2010 and again at Royal Porthcawl in 2014. “I’m a competitive person in everything, it doesn’t matter what it is, and I enjoy the game.”