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The US Open: they're shooting for a piece of tradition

A tradition-steeped event like the US Open is always big on sentiment, and this year once again the tournament has its usual quota of players for whom victory would be especially heartwarming or meaningful.

Almost every one of the top contenders, in fact, has some reason that the 1980 renewal of the nation's premier golf classic at historic Baltusrol in Springfield, N.J., this weekend would be a fitting one for him to win.

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To begin with there's Tom Watson -- by far the world's top golfer over the last three years, but still looking for his first US Open victory in this, his ninth attempt. Already, people are mentioning his plight alongside that of Sam Snead, who came close on many occasions but never did win the Open throughout his long and glorious career. Watson still has plenty of time, of course, but the mental pressures have to be growing at this point, and the fact that he didn't even make the cut last year at Inverness isn't exactly reassuring. Still , he wins more than anyone else on the tour, and must be considered among the top favorites in any event he plays.

There's also Jack Nicklaus, of course, trying once again to regain a bit of the glory that has eluded him now for nearly two years. The Golden Bear hasn't really been in the limelight since winning the British Open in 1978, and adding a special significance now is the realization that any major tournament he does win might very well be the last big moment in the game's most fabulous career. Another Open victory would also give Jack four titles, tying him for the record with Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, and turn-of-the-century Scotsman Willie Anderson. Finally, if indeed any more incentive could possibly be needed, it was at Baltusrol in 1967 that Nicklaus won his second Open title, setting a still-standing tournament record of 275 in the process.

Another golfer with perhaps even fonder memories of Baltusrol is Lee Trevino, for it was there in that same 1967 Open that he launched himself from obscurity onto the road that has made him the game's second all-time leading money winner (trailing only Nicklaus), with more than $2 million in prize money. Trevino was a totally unknown club pro in Texas when he made it through local and sectional qualifying events to reach Baltusrol, then stunned everyone by finishing fifth. Lee won the Open at Oak Hill the next year for his first big breakthrough, tying Nicklaus's 275 score (they remain coholders of the record), and he won it again in 1971. It was at Baltusrol, though, that it all really began -- and it was also there that the "Merry Mex" first enthralled the fans and the news media with the bubbling personality and quick wit that have been his trademarks ever since.

Then there is the ever-popular Gary Player, a member of the "old guard" now, and surely close to running out of chances in his bid to complete a second career Grand Slam of the four major championships (the US and British Opens, the Masters, and the PGA). Player, though many do not realize it, accomplished this feat before Nicklaus did, completing his slam in 1965 to beat Jack by a year, though the latter, of course, has gone on to do it twice more. Now, Gary says, his one big remaining ambition is to do it again.

These four -- Watson, Nicklaus, Trevino, and Player -- are probably tops in the "sentimental favorite" department, but in the cold light of probabilities, there are several other names that rank right up there with chances at least as good.

One of the biggest threats, of course, is Seve Ballesteros, the young Spaniard who has chosen to play mostly in Europe but has proved he can win the big ones anywhere via his 1979 British Open victory and his triumph in this year's Masters. Others playing well right now and mentioned frequently in pretournament speculation include Andy Bean, John Mahaffey, Larry Nelson, and Mike Reid. And one canht overlook two-time winner Hale Irwin, the defending champion, who has demonstrated he knows how to peak for this event.

As is traditional in the Open, Baltusrol's challenging Lower Course is expected to provide a stiff test in all aspects of the game. The course measures 7,076 yards, which is fairly long, but its tight fairways and high, difficult rough may end up placing an even higher premium on hitting the ball accurately than on distance. Par is 280, the same as it was 13 years ago, but few expect any challenge to Nicklaus's record. A new watering system and a wetter spring than in 1967 have combined to soften the fairways and create thick , really fierce rough, leading most observers to believe that shooting par will be quite an accomplishment, and that the winning score will be right around that 280 figure.

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A field of 156, including 18 amateurs, is competing in the four-day, 72-hole event concluding Sunday at the famous New Jersey course, which is hosting the Open for a record sixth time (previous winners there were Willie Anderson in 1903, J. D. Travers in 1915, Tony Manero in 1936, Ed Furgol in 1954, and Nicklaus in 1967). As usual, there will be ample television coverage Saturday and Sunday, with ABC-TV scheduling four hours each day from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., Eastern daylight time.

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