Watson turned Turnberry's tide

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- Thanks, Tom.

Thanks for saving this Open Championship from post-Tiger Woods withdrawal. Thanks for single-handedly rescuing a tournament that had its steering wheel turned toward ZZZZZurnberry and a leaderboard of Who's-That?, What's-His-Face and So-and-So.

We owe you, Tom Watson. When Woods, the world's No. 1 and favorite of every major and minor, shockingly couldn't make the cut here, the Open suffered an immediate star-power outage. But the nearly 60-year-old Watson keeps dialing his golf time machine back to 1977 -- when he won his second of five Claret Jugs -- and still leads the championship by 1 thin stroke over two guys you've probably never heard of.

Watson, one of only seven players in the red, is doing everything but selling pints of Tennent's in the Turnberry food court. Man, he grinded Saturday to reach 4-under par. It wasn't a thing of beauty (much like that purple checkerboard sweater he wore after apparently losing a bet), but he keeps sinking putts the length of drag strips. This from a guy who readily admits that his putting stroke sees a therapist.

There have been two storylines since the tournament began: Woods' stunning departure and Watson's refusal to leave the leaderboard. Now Watson becomes the centerpiece of The Open -- thank goodness.

"The first day here, yeah, let the old geezer have his day in the sun, you know, [shoot] 65," said Watson after Saturday's round. "The second day you said, 'Well, that's OK, that's OK.' And then now today you kind of perk up your ears and say, 'This old geezer might have a chance to win the tournament.' "

This old geezer has gone from 250-1 odds at the local gambling parlors to 7-1, and he's still not the favorite. But that's all right. Nobody thought he'd even be in this position. They thought he'd miss the cut, not Woods.

Watson was in full scramble mode for large portions of Saturday's play. He spent more time in the sand than a starfish and faced more must-make par putts than you can count. But just when you thought he'd evaporate under the heat lamp of majors pressure, Watson would do something remarkable.

He sank those knee-knocker par putts early on, missed some late and then dropped a long birdie putt on No. 16 to climb back into a three-way tie for the lead. Then he reached the 559-yard par-5 17th in two and canned another birdie putt to forearm-shiver his way back atop the leaderboard by 1 stroke over Aussie Mathew Goggin and England's Ross Fisher.

If there is a golf god, he or she will make sure Watson wins this thing. Otherwise, Sunday has the potential for a huge yawn factor. Doesn't mean we'll get the Boredom Open, but I'd rather not take any chances.

Seriously, which storyline sounds more fun: Goggin, who lives in Arizona, becoming the first Australian since 1993 to win an Open. … Or Fisher, whose wife is expecting their first child any nanosecond, becoming only the fourth Englishman since World War II to win an Open. … Or Watson, who would become the oldest player ever to win a major (Fisher wasn't born when Huck Finn won here in '77, and Goggin was 1 year old when Watson earned his first Open in '75 at Carnoustie)?

Hmmm. I'll take the Watson guy.

As usual, Watson and his old buddy Jack Nicklaus are attached at the golf belts on this. Watson and Nicklaus made history here in the '77 "Duel in the Sun," when TW beat the Golden Bear to win the Open by one. And if Watson somehow defies time 32 years later, it solar-eclipses Nicklaus' memorable victory at the Masters in 1986.

Nicklaus was 46 when he gave our goose bumps goose bumps at Augusta National. But Watson is 59 years and 317 days old entering the final round. A victory here overwhelms Nicklaus' feat like a royal flush overwhelms two pair.

"Well, I think he's watching," said Watson of Nicklaus. "And I think he's -- you know, you'll have to ask Jack. But I know my friend is watching, and it would be something special if I did what I intend to do tomorrow."

Don't you love it? Watson intends to win this thing. He doesn't care about his birth certificate or who's chasing him. He has his plan and he's sticking to it.

As for the rest of the leaderboard, it has some interesting names, but nothing that approaches the drama quotient of Watson pulling off one of the great majors victories of all time. There's Lee Westwood and Retief Goosen at 2-under and Jim Furyk and Stewart Cink at 1-under. After that, I doze off until reaching Boo Weekley at 1-over, John Daly at 2-over and Mark Calcavecchia and Ernie Els at 3-over.

Nope, Watson is the star. He has gone from an "Oh, isn't that cute?" kind of first-round story to a full-fledged real thing on Sunday. It's similar to Greg Norman's situation last year at Birkdale. Norman was 53, led The Open with nine holes remaining, and then imploded with a 77.

I don't think Watson shoots 77 on Sunday. He knows this place too well, and his game has been injected with Botox. Any younger-looking and it would get carded at the clubhouse door.

When he walked off the green after Saturday's round, Watson stopped to talk to a spectator seated against the grandstands.

"Make it six," said the old man to Watson.

Six Open Championships … that would tie Watson with Harry Vardon for the most Open titles. Not only would Watson get another Claret Jug, but maybe he'd get a golf grip named after him.

And waiting for Watson just inside the white picket fence at the recorders' office (the scorers' trailer, in stateside lingo) was Fisher.

"Well played, mate," he said to Watson. "Well played."

It was, wasn't it? Suddenly it's "Tiger who?" And all because of a golf codger who refuses to act his age.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.