LUTZ — With more than 36 years of professional golf experience, Tom Watson has seen and done about everything. He has won eight major championships, picked up more than 60 wins on the PGA Tour, Champions Tour and around the world, and has won more than $20-million.
But he had never done what he did Friday in the first round of the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am.
Watson birdied seven of nine holes on the TPC of Tampa Bay's front nine (his second nine) to shoot 7-under 28. Overall, he shot 8-under 63 to lead by three over David Eger and Mark Wiebe.
His 63 matched the best first-round score in tournament history (Brian Barnes in 1998 and Tom Kite in 2004). His 28 tied the tournament's nine-hole scoring record (Fuzzy Zoeller in 2004).
"Never shot 28 before," Watson said, smiling. "Now that was fun."
And the scary thing about that nine-hole performance?
"I missed it from about 12 feet at No. 2, and I missed a straight 20-footer at 8," he said. "So I could've birdied all the holes on the front nine."
Watson, 58, put himself in good shape to defend his championship with two rounds left.
It didn't look like that would be the case when his round started. He three-putted the par-4 10th (his first hole) for bogey, then needed a 10-footer for par on the par-3 11th. He nearly hit his second shot in the water on the par-5 12th, which he parred, and almost did the same on the par-3 17th, which he bogeyed.
"I was lucky," Watson said.
Then came the front nine. His birdie barrage included a 25-footer on No. 1 and 50-footer on No. 4. Armed with a new putter, he almost didn't want to stop playing.
"You ride that horse as far as it will go," Watson said. "It's like the Pony Express, you ride that horse until it drops. You know there's going to be some times when nothing is going to happen right. Everything seemed to happen right today. You make a 50-footer and you figure it's going to be a pretty good day."
Left with the task of trying to catch Watson were players such as Eger, Wiebe and three others at 4-under 67, including Scott Hoch. Hoch has the game to stay in the hunt. He has won twice this season, in Boca Raton and Naples.
But unlike Watson, Hoch couldn't get his putts to fall Friday.
"I had a good score but I felt I left a number of shots out there," he said. "Three of the five birdies I made were just tap-ins or very close putts. And I hit a lot of other good shots, I just didn't make any of those putts."
Wiebe followed his win at the Cap Cana Championship in the Dominican Republic two weeks ago with another solid round. He had a bogey-free day. Tampa's Gary Koch was the only other player to post a bogey-free round, 2-under 69. Eger played almost as consistently with six birdies and just one bogey, at 17.
"I drove the ball in play all day," Eger said. "But then my irons weren't very sharp. I did hit a few good ones and made some birdie putts."
It appears birdie putts are what it's going to take to catch Watson. Weather should not be a factor this weekend, so there is the opportunity for low scores.
If there is one thing working against Watson it is history. No player in the 20 years of a senior tournament in Tampa Bay has successfully defended his title. And no first-round leader has won the Outback Pro-Am.
"I guess I'm jinxed now," Watson said. "Well, I've always had the philosophy that you get as far ahead as you can because if you make a mistake, you're still in the lead. People say they want to come from behind. Well, that's all right. Let the other people feel the pressure. I like getting out in front and running with it."
Rodney Page can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8810.