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World's top golfers set to tee off on seaside course at `The Open'

There is some question which came first, it can seem -- the game of golf or the British Open. Excuse me, The Open, with an upper-case ``T.'' In the minds of many in Britain there is no other. The 114th Open will be played here this week, on the venerable seaside course called Royal St. George's. It will mark the 11th playing of the Open -- sorry, The Open -- on these dunesy links.

The earliest, in 1894, was the first Open held outside Scotland. The championship now alternates between England and Scotland.

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John Henry Taylor won here in '94 and was succeeded at St. George's by more recognizable chaps such as Harry Vardon (twice), Walter Hagen (also twice), Henry Cotton, and Bobby Locke.

America's Bill Rogers captured the trophy the last time it was awarded here, in 1981, and has been scarcely heard from since.

``I won overseas three times in 1981 and had to go back on seven trips the following year to honor my commitments,'' Rogers says today. ``I didn't handle it all as well as the superstars do. Whenever anybody wanted something from me, I obliged. I lost my desire to play. I don't know at this point if I'm finished or not.'' Rogers is here.

Tom Watson, the leading player in the world the past several years and a perennial favorite here, also has been off his game. He hasn't won in 1985, largely because of uncharacteristically poor putting.

Watson hasn't played since missing the cut in the US Open at Oakland Hills nearly a month ago. Instead he's stayed in Kansas City working on his game, particularly his once-deadly putting stroke.

He hopes the British Open will jolt him into form, since it's his favorite tournament. He's won it five times to share the modern record with Peter Thomson, now the scourge of the senior tour, and is only one victory short of Vardon's all-time record.

``That's a special incentive for me,'' says Watson. He barely needs one here, he likes the conditions so much.

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``They are very different from what we're used to on the PGA Tour, where everything is so well manicured. The courses are dry and firm, and you have to bounce and run the ball more. You have to use your imagination, but you can get the ball on the green in bad weather. That's the way the game began, but Americans have lost sight of it. It's a fun, fresh challenge every year.''

Watson contended hard for last year's great championship at St. Andrews, but Seve Ballesteros of Spain birdied the last hole to beat him.

Watson tied for second with Bernhard Langer of West Germany, who this year won the Masters Tournament. (What a year it's been for that country with tennis player Boris Becker upsetting the field at Wimbledon!) Langer was runner-up here to Rogers in '81 also, and so is an obvious candidate to contend.

The hottest player in this part of the world of late, though, is the quixotic Ballesteros, who beat Langer in a playoff at the Irish Open and more recently won the French Open. He hasn't played outstandingly in his US appearances this season, but has been imposing in the more comfortable surroundings of Europe, awesomely blending power and inventive short-game play. Ballesteros is a highly emotional player who rises to the warm support of the British, who consider him an adopted son.

Conspicuous by their absence are Curtis Strange, the only three-time winner on the US tour in 1985 and its top money earner, and US Open king Andy North.

Strange says he found the scheduling too tight since he had committed to play in last week's tournament in Virginia, his home state. He says he is dedicating himself to winning the US money title and breaking Watson's dollar record.

By holding off Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman in the Canadian Open, Strange became the first player to make half a million dollars in just over half a season. He is a virtual certainty to topple Watson's record of $530,808 set five years ago.

North, perhaps failing to anticipate that he'd become the surprise winner of the US Open, apparently never seriously considered coming over, which seems somewhat sad.

Nicklaus, who showed at the Canadian Open he still can play surpassing golf, fears the major championships are losing prominence in an era of big money and a swollen schedule. He, at age 45, is still questing after his 20th major.

The British give their own stars, Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle, a better chance than usual at this true links course not far from the site where William the Conqueror landed nearly a millenium ago, even before The Open was established. The Open -- with a large ``T'' -- will be telecast back to the US by ESPN the first two days and ABC the last two.

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