MUIRFIELD, Scotland — The putter came down steady, no hesitation, no second-guessing, and — mmmmmmwah! — it kissed the little ball goodby.

Five feet. Ten. Fifteen. Eighteen. . . .

Kerplop.

The crowd around the 18th green roared its approval, roared from under umbrellas and wet suits and plastic bags. And the turtle-necked man in the blue sweater and soggy red hair answered them with a surprise — a fist down by his knees, a fist that seemed to say: “Sleep on that, folks. I’ll be back in the morning.”

Tom Watson was going to the clubhouse at four under par.

Tom Watson was back in the hunt to win his sixth British Open title.

Is there any American not rolling with that fist this morning? Any American who doesn’t somehow want to see Watson, who trails leader Paul Azinger by two strokes in this 116th British Open, kissing the silver winner’s cup this afternoon? Oh, maybe the very young. Maybe those too apple-cheeked to know the first shiver of age, that horrible moment when a trick you once did by heart sends you scrambling for the instruction book.

But the rest of us can find compassion with his story. Where has Tom Watson been? The last time he won a tournament, he was the No. 1 player in the world. The best going. His style was aggressive: big shots, great saves, long putts. “The smartest of the lot,” Jack Nicklaus once called him — back when he was winning. That was a thousand days ago.

Here is what has happened since 1984: He has questioned his desire, his clubs, his confidence. His mail has been flooded with gift-wrapped putters and notes that read, “TRY THIS, IT WILL FIX YOUR GAME, (signed) A FAN.” The British tabloids, which once revered him as the five-time winner of their Open, have recently treated him like some fallen matinee idol. They alleged drugs. Alcohol. Marital problems. All were blamed for Tom Watson’s sudden inability to put a little ball into a little cup as easily as he once did.

“I used to walk up to a 50-footer and see the line and say there it is,” he said just a few months ago. “I can’t do that now. I’ve lost the touch.”

He sounded tired.

He sounded old.

He was 37.

The worst struggles of all are when you have to fight yourself. There was nothing physically wrong with Tom Watson, no tangible culprit for his sudden drought of victory.

But the same way a salesman may suddenly lose his edge, or a successful boxer lose the sting of hunger, so too did Watson suddenly discover something was missing, and so too did he engage in a get-nowhere wrestle with his psyche. Suddenly, a man who once calmly sank 40-foot putts was seeing 10-foot tries rolling past the hole. A guy who could save any shot was leaving them all in distress. He switched putters. He lost his rhythm. His strokes were indecisive. “My swing is wrinkled,” he declared, glumly.

Even here, at the British Open — which has always been his major — he slipped then fell. After winning in 1983, he blew up on the next-to-the-last hole in 1984 and finished tied for second. In 1985, he was 47th. In 1986, he tied for 35th.

Tom Watson? The Tom Watson? Ten years ago, he and Jack Nicklaus staged a British Open duel that still makes golf- lovers weep. For two days along the Scottish coast at Turnberry, they battled, far in front of the pack, one brilliant shot after another, the guy wire of pressure at their throats the entire time. It was a lovely war, and Watson won it with a birdie putt on the final hole. Nerve? You try putting to win with Jack Nicklaus staring across the green.

So he had nerve. People didn’t always believe it. (Indeed, Watson was once labeled a “choker” before his brilliant stretch of golf in the late 1970s.) But now, in the mid-’80s, it wasn’t choking that was getting to him. It was something worse.

He was starting not to care.

When I began playing golf, every tournament was like to U.S. Open to me,” Watson said. “It’s not like that anymore. I wish it was. Really. I wish I could tee it up at the Quad Cities Open and say it felt like here at the British. It doesn’t.”

He was smiling less. He enjoyed it less. “This is not fun,” he would repeatedly say to his caddie. “My desire is not there,” he told the press. Who knows how these spirals get started? No fun leads to no success? No success leads to no desire? Who knows? It all leads to questions that lead to questions that lead to more questions. And suddenly, you look the same, you weigh the same, but you are a memory of yourself, someone you see in your sleep.

“Do you think you can intimidate some of the younger players here?” someone had asked Watson at the start of this tournament. “I don’t think I intimidate anyone anymore,” he said. “I haven’t played worth a darn in two years.”

Can you imagine Tom Watson a drug fiend? A raging alcoholic? Here is the original Huckleberry kid, gap-toothed, reddish-hair, born and bred in Missouri, for Pete’s sake! He met his wife in a high school play. His dad owned a duck blind on the Missouri River. His fondest childhood moments were going quail hunting with his pop.

He could sell breakfast cereal, or deodorant. He has the look of a guy who comes downstairs and says, “Honey, have you seen my blue socks?” Get the man a peanut butter sandwich. Drugs?

But that is what they were whispering — and writing — particularly in Great Britain. A reporter here Thursday asked whether he was “sniffing victory” at Muirfield and Watson cynically replied, “According to some of you guys, I’ve been sniffing a lot more than that.”

Amazing. Ten years ago, his victory at Turnberry sparked one of the most successful five-year runs in golf history. Now it was all coming apart. Enormous talent, followed by enormous success, followed by enormous letdown.

In many ways, it was as American as a story can get.

Which means a comeback would be perfect, right? And the first seeds of that were planted last month, on a coast far sunnier than this one, Northern California, the U.S. Open at Olympic Club. There, just weeks after calling the year “the worst time of my career,” Watson finished second to Scott Simpson. But places didn’t matter. He was more enthralled with the “click” he heard inside his head during the second round.

“All of a sudden,” he recalled, “it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the way you do it. That’s the way you swing a golf club.’

“Suddenly, I was able to accept the idea that I was going to make some bogeys and still keep the frame of mind to win a tournament. I had confidence again. The putter started working.”

On Saturday here, he double-bogeyed the second hole by burying the ball in a bunker. A year ago that might have started a grumbling spiral that would have squashed his chances. “But this time, when I finally put it in, I felt fortunate to just have double-bogeyed. That’s the difference. I was looking at it as turning something bad into something good.”

And he did. On the third hole he sank a 10-foot putt. On the fourth he sank

a seven-footer. On the fifth, an eight-footer. On the sixth, another seven-footer. “That stretch really gave me confidence — to be able to do something with the putter again.”

He grinned. Here was a man who has made hundreds of putts far more difficult than those; a six-time player of the year, a Masters champion, a U.S. Open champion. That gave him confidence? Those little putts? Yes. Sometimes the smallest steps back are the hardest ones to take.

So who isn’t rolling with that happy fist this morning? Certainly not anyone who has ever experienced the blahs of middle-age, who has ever wondered whether he has lost the touch, who has ever had to suck in a gut or lose 10 pounds or look long and hard in the mirror and figure out who was on the other side.

When Watson’s mentor, Byron Nelson, retired from the game, he was asked why: “Because I have to try to try,” he answered. Until recently, until this week perhaps, that was Watson’s biggest fear. But when he walked off that 18th green Saturday, grinning at the crowd, the leader just two strokes ahead of him — trying, for once, didn’t look to be the problem.

He looked as if he couldn’t wait. CUTLINE Tom Watson: “I wish I could tee it up at the Quad Cities Open and say it felt like here at the British. It doesn’t.”

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