He did so by sinking an eagle putt on the fifth at the Old Course to once again confound his critics at the age of nearly 69.
Not content with sharing top spot, the five-time Open champion birdied the next to serve notice of his intent to ring every last drop of juice from his game in a bid to secure a 71st career victory.
But his spell as outright leader of the pack on 10-under-par came to an abrupt halt five holes from home.
Having hit his second shot into a trap, Watson came out in three, hit his fourth shot over the green followed by a poor chip and two putts for a seven.
He steadied the ship briefly by carding a par at the next, but that opened the door for Miguel Angel Jimenez to take command with a birdie at the hole where Watson had come to grief.
Meanwhile, Watson’s travails continued unabated as he struggled to hold it together down the stretch, dropping further shots at 16 and 17 sandwiched between pars. He eventually signed for a 73 but he remains very much a contender, with only three shots to make up on leader Jimenez in today’s final round.
Jimenez signed for a 72 to establish a two-shot advantage over his nearest rivals, who include defending champion Bernhard Langer. Langer posted a 73 after dropping a shot at the last to join American pair Pernice and Kirk Triplett on a crowded leaderboard at seven-under.
But it was Watson who thrilled the crowds for much of the afternoon at the venue where he finished joint Open runner-up to Seve Ballesteros in 1984.
He said: “The wind blew hard making it a tough inward nine and I made some mistakes and paid the penalty for them.
“The double bogey didn’t make me very happy, but, all in all, I played some quality shots on a tough golf course.
“I wish I had been a couple of shots lower but it’s good to be in the position I am. Right now I’m in a bunch just behind the leaders and I’m going to have to play some really good golf tomorrow to come out in front.”
Jimenez, who missed an 18-inch putt for par on the 15th, said: “Conditions were brutal and it was not easy in the gusting winds. It was a little bit like being on a roller coaster, up and down, up and down, but I am going to do my best to focus and stay patient. That’s the main thing in these difficult conditions.”
Langer added: “There was a lot of good in my round but there were some putts I would love to have back.
“I made a bunch of three-putts and missed a couple of short ones, but it was very uncomfortable in the wind.
“The ball was oscillating and I guess the long putter is not great in very strong winds.
“I was thrilled about my birdie on 17, but then making a bogey at the last leaves a sour taste. But we’ll have to bring a good attitude to the course tomorrow, no matter what, whether you are leading or chasing to try to embrace the elements and make the best of them”
Playing partners Sandy Lyle and Colin Montgomerie, pictured inset, began on an equal footing on five-under-par but when their work was done they were separated by no fewer than six shots, Monty having carded a 72 to his compatriot’s 78.