From the stone Tudor clubhouse of Baltusrol Golf Club, the only hint of Manhattan on the horizon are the twin towers of the World Trade Center 15 miles away, poking their heads above the woods that surround this U.S. Open layout.

Those skyscrapers -- giants staring eye-to-eye -- seem a symbol of the showdown golf between titans that Baltusrol has produced in the past and may produce in this year's Open, which begins Thursday.

The last time the Open came here, in 1967, the nub of the drama was Jack Nicklaus against Arnold Palmer. This year, for the 80th Open and the sixth at Baltusrol, the potential for theater, as well as debate over "Who's No. 1?" is almost as great with Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros edging toward center stage here.

When Nicklaus beat Palmer 13 years ago, both were legends in their prime, champions without blemish. Watson and Ballesteros, by contrast, come here with vast raw skills but with nagging questons about their places in history.

Watson, 30, is on his way to becoming the PGA Tour's top player for the fourth consecutive year, something neither Nicklaus nor Palmer ever managed. But he's never won the Open. In fact, he has won only one major tournament in the U.S. in 28 tries.

Ballesteros, only 23, has won the last two major tournaments that he has entered -- the 1979 British Open and the 1980 Masters. He threatens to become the world champion.

The knock on Ballesteros, however, is that he showcases his games by blitzing the soft world circuit while picking his spots to meet the top U.S. pros.

The long-hitting Spaniard has won majors at the almost roughless Augusta National and Royal Lytham courses, but he ducked last year's PGA at tight Oakland Hills, has not made a ripple at three U.S. Opens and seldom plays in regular U.S. tour events where the trend is toward tougher, more punitive courses.

Both Watson and Ballesteros have much to prove here. And both have considerable reason for high hopes.

Watson has done a nearly 180-degree reversal in his preparations for his 10th Open. In the past, he has professed that the Open was similar to any other tournament, downplayed its importance or the presence of any special pressure. Then he ferociously tended to the minute details of his swing by taking two or three weeks off to prepare specifically for the Open.

In other words, he was outwardly nonchalant but inwardly revved to the hilt.

Yesterday, the new Watson said, "The U.S. Open is the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Rose Bowl of golf. It's our national championship and the most important event in the sport.

"I can't pretend to myself or anybody else that it isn't more important than other events to me, because it is -- much more important. I've put a lot of pressure on myself to win the Open, almost to the point where it could be a problem for me."

While finally acknowledging the pressure of the Open, Watson has simultaneously done everything possible to minimize the inner tension.

"In the past, I may have practiced too much, thought too much and not stayed competitive enough by playing in tournaments. This year, I played at Congressional two weeks ago -- and played well. I've kept my mind off the Open, relaxed and didn't come here until Monday," said Watson.

"I want this tournament much more than any other. I'm playing well and putting very well," he added, reversing his past form of laying the groundwork for alibis. "I'm having some driver problems, but nothing like last year (when he missed the cut at Inverness).

"I'm fairly confident about my chances . . . I'm ready . . . But I gotta let it happen. I can't make it happen."

This is a great player in the midst of playing some serious peak-of-career head games.

Has his lack of an Open title begun to bother him, to haunt him as it did Sam Snead, Watson was asked.

"Ask me that in 10 or 15 years," said Watson, putting the tempest in its proper teapot.

If Watson still has plenty of Open time, then Ballesteros has eons: "As great a player as Ballesteros is," saidGil Morgan, "you know that over the next 20 years, he's going to find a couple of Open courses that he can beat. This might be one of them, although I'd bet against him."

Every player here -- all 156 -- agree that Baltusrol is an extremely unusual USGA course: it's fair.

"For the first time in several years, we have an Open course that permits some tolerance of human error," said Nicklaus. "I'm a bit surprised. The course isn't tricked up at all -- it's dead honest and fair. A great test."

Ballesteros and Baltusrol may go together quite euphoniously. The fairways are a tad wider than usual and the soft turf won't kick drives into the rough.

"This is the longest Open course I've ever played," said Lee Trevino, a sentimental favorite since he first made a name for himself by finishing 13th here in 1967. "But even Ballesteros is going to have to pull out his driver on every hole here. He can't play cozy with a one-iron. If he starts hooking it a few times a round like he did at the Masters, heaven help him."

Seldom has any major tournament had such a clearly defined cast of undeniably prominent characters. Watson and Ballesteros, both young and both in midquest for greatness, are the most vivid. But Nicklaus and Trevino, both 40 and both enormous picks-from-the-heart here, are their rivals for affection.

Hale Irwin may be defending Open champion, Larry Nelson and John Mahaffey may be coming off impressive victories in Atlanta and Washington, and a score of other players may have the game to win here, but many an eye this week will be on two millionares -- the Merry Mex and the Golden Bear.

Trevino is seeing green at the moment.

"I just don't putt like I used to . . . not even close, he said. "I'm doing everything else the best of my life -- haven't missed a fairway in the last two practice rounds -- yet I haven't made one birdie. That's ridiculous.

"I spent all last week (sequestered in Connecticut) working on my putting. I didn't find a thing."

Trevino is saddened by that cold stroke, because a victory here would be a symbolic high point of his career, a testament to his comeback after being struck by lightning, a sort of summing up for the proud little man who, when he came here in '67, "had $300 in my pocket, didn't even own a sport coat and ate Chinese every night 'cause they wouldn't let me in the Union Motel coffee shop without a jacket."

Nicklaus, because he has reached greater heights, is perhaps more disheartening to watch now that he seems caught on a treadmill. "I never know how I'm playing these days." he said. "I change things every day. I actually putted well today . . . for once . . . I would like to have advanced the tournament a day Oh, well, I'm in good health, family's fine and I'm glad to be here."

Revisiting this course where he set the Open scoring record of 275 (since tied by Trevino), Nicklaus has had sobering moments. He has taken out his old yardage cards marking the spots where his drives used to land. "I must of been some kind of gorilla," he said.

"I also saw a videotape of that last round," he added.

What did he notice?

"Eight long birdie putts in the final round," he said wistfully.

The kind Tom Watson and Steve Ballesteros now make.