I'd like to be able to look back 40 years from now and say. 'I've made a mark." I've already made more money this year then some of the great golfers of all time did, but that's not as returning standard. What matters is titles. That's how great players are measured.

Tom Watson

Tom Watson stepped up to the tee at 10:40 a.m. Wednesday and prepared to hit his first shot in the 106th British Open golf championships. He addressed the ball and took a deep breath- feeling, he was to say later, "just the right amount of nervousness for the start of a major tournament."

He gripped his driver and, with a swing as smooth as a fine French chef's mousse, faded the bail 300 yards down the right side of the fairway, the kind of superb drive he has been hitting all year. Watson is a deceptively long hitter because his carefully calculated leg action gives him more power than one might expect from his 5-foot-9, 160-pound build.

Watson, 27, the Masters champion and leading money winner on the U.S. tour, is second only to Jack Nicklaus as a betting favorite to recapture the British open title he won at Carnoustie in 1975, his first major championship.

Gone is th eirritating "choker" label that was hung around Watson's neck like an albatress after he collapsed in the final round of the 1974 U.S. open: Winged Foot. He neutralized the unjustified reputation at Augusta National in April, sinking a 17-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole of the last round to strangle a late charge by Nicklaus for the Masters green coat.

Watson is the only player on the U.S. tour with four victories this year. In addition to the Masters, he won the Bing Crosby at Peeble Beach, the Andy Williams at San Diego and the Western Open at Chicago the week before last. He tuned up for the British Open by winning an eight-man event in Barcelona, Spain, last week by 11 strokes over Ray Floyd, finishing 19 under par.

More impressive is his consistency. He has finished in the top five in 12 fo 18 U.S. tournaments this year and has earned $269.115, well ahead of Johnny Miller's 1974 pace, the year he set the tour reocrd of $353,021.

When you're hot, you're hot, and so putting it all together - the sweet swing and the acute mind that long held so much promise - has changed the life Watson and his wife, Linda, knew before.

"It's made it much busier. Our thime is filled to beyond the ppoint where I'd like it to be, and it infringes on our private life a bit too much." Watson said, a touch of wistfulness showing in the green eyes that sparkle beneath his shock of reddish hair.

"It's not really a price to pay, it's part of the whole professional golf world. It comes automatically with success. I guess I've gradually grown accustomed to it, but I'm still a private person. I don't like to be displayed.I'd much rather have a quiet conversation than a loud party."

"We're both basically quiet people. We're not used to getting to a hotel and finding a long list of people to call, or getting asked for autographs at dinner," said Linda Watson, who married Tom four years ago Friday. They had ben junior high sweet hearts in Kansas City, having met when their private shocols put on a joint presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance." They were both in the chorus.

"It has all happened so fast, but it's been fun. Tom has worked for it. he never walks off the course and says he's tired. At Sa Diego, he practiced every day after his round, even though he had just set a record in winning the Crosby," Linda continued.

"I'm sure Tom can deal with the new pressures, because he's had to deal with things right along - the "choking' business and all the nonsense. He knows you can't win every tournament you're leading. No one ever has. But Tom is determined to be known as great player, and that means winning titles.

"He's out there fulfilling a dream. I remember at Canoustie he said he couldn't dreams were all swirling around him. Suddenly there it was, a three-foot put to win his first major cahmpionship. It was the British Open, in stead of the U.S. Open as he had imagined as a kid, but it was still a little terrifying."

Watson is appealing if not truly charismatic. He has reckles, a gap between his front teeth, and a Midwestern earnestness that makes him seem a bit like Tom Sawyer with an intellect and a degree in psychology from Standford. ("The family school," siad Linda: Tom's father and two brothers are also Standford alumni.) He is not a flamboyant player, but that easy swing makes him a delight to watch.

Success has been pretty much as he envisioned it. "It fans have been good to me. I've been good to the fans and the press, too. It's a reciprocal thing," he says.

"Sometimes you feel pent up. angry with yourself, and you don't feel like being nice, but you have to say to yourself. 'Cool down.' There are duties you have to perform regardless of your mood.

It used to be said that Watson thought too much on the golf course, dazzled himself with the possibilities and then missed a shot. He doesn't agree completely, but understands the point.

"Conference in golf means being able to concentrate on the problem at hand. It's really having no outside interference on what you know you can do. Sometimes by thinking too much you can destroy your momentrum and instinct." he said.

"A lot of times, when you're under hte gun, you have to make the best judgement you can, and instinct takes over. Sam Snead was the best at it, I think. He never used yardage. He had great hand-eye coordination and sense of distance. His instincts for this game were tremendous."

Watson says he cannot pinpoint any one thing, either mechanically or psychologically, that made his game click.

"I just had to learn how to win, and how to play golf. When I came on the tour in 1971-72, i wasn't a seasoned golfer," he says. "I'm still learning but I've become a more solid player and a much better thinker. It was tough for me to start winning, but now it's starting to happen.

"I don't analyze it as mich everyone else. I just let it happen. But I know one thing-winning breeds winning. Like the Miami Dolphins when they won 17 straight games. They had a bunch of winners, and when that team was broken up it lost the winning spirit. You have a couple of deaf-eats and it puts bad thoughts in your mind.

Watson gives most of the credit for developing his game to his longtime coach. Kansas City club pro Stan Thirsk, but Byron nelson made important adjustments in his swing in September, He changed his angle of attack, helped him make relaxing the right and added control by making the swing more compact.

"Stan Thirsk gave me my swing. Byron told me. "You already have waht it takes: you just need some refinements," said Watson. "He told me at the British Open last year (Watson missed the last-day cut at Royal Birkdale) that if I wanted to go to his ranch, just call him. I called in September and asked for some help.

"He's been very nice to me. He took me aside at Winged Foot when I shot 79 after leading the U.S. Open after three rounders. It's kind to have someone like him console you and cheer you up, because you know he knows what it's like. He's played bad and lost tournments and knows the feeling, but didn't dwell on that. He talked about mechanics, about making better use of my legs."

Watson says that he has had "some pretty good mental instruction" as well from Thirsk, nelson and ken Venturi. "The most important thing that I learned, mentally, was to play within my limits," he said. "Know what you can do and can't do." In that regard, he sounds much like Billie Jean King, who says "I think the last peice of the puzzle of any champion to fit place is total self-awareness."

Waston shot a second-round 70 today to leave him at two-under-par 138, in good challenging position.

Linda Watson told some stories that revealed another side of her husband as she followed him around the Turnberry links.

"At the Western Open Arnold Palmer bought a couple of cases of Rolling Rock, his favorite beer, and hid them in the locker room," she says. "You think my hair's receding?"

Linda is bright, enging outgoing. She is intensely interested in Tom's golf, knows the subtleties of the game, follows every round. For Christmas two years ago, she gave him a replica of the British Open trophy. "They don't give the champion a miniature of the cup, so I had one made up for him at a London silversmith's," she said.

But she, too, resists being constumed said. "The other guys found it and drank it. When Arnie came in, J.C. Snead said, "Thanks, it was delicious." Arnie was so upset, Tom's been kidding him severe since.

"He was giving it to him pretty good, saying 'Arnie, you're getting fat,' in the elevator the other night. Arnie said, "You shouldn't talk, you're getting a little thin-on top." I guess he hit a soft spot because Tom's been looking in the mirror ever since. He by the game that is Tom Watson's business. "He's always felt that golf is one thing and home is another. That's changed somewhat," but we still like our privacy and our other interests."

"I never want to be just a golf professional who looks at his trophies all the time. That's not me," said Watson. "I enjoy my victories, but not for long I believe in looking forward. Maybe when I'm 60 I can dwell on the past a bit more."