Early Sunday, during the final round of the Memorial Golf Tournament at Dublin, Ohio, publicity director Jim Wisler walked up behind the 18th green and squinted at the leader board.

He smiled at what he saw. Wisler's boss, Jack Nicklaus, had finished the front nine with a four-under-par 32 that put him one shot behind the leaders -- Keith Fergus, Jack Renner and Tom Watson.

In Wisler's mind, the first two men did not exist. "Here's the scenario," he said. "Jack and Watson in a playoff, and it goes all the way to 18. That gets up into prime time. Then Jack makes a 35-footer on 18 and zaps him with everyone watching."

At that moment, Watson made another birdie. Wisler grimaced. "Watson," he said, "is not cooperating."

Neither Watson nor Nicklaus cooperated with Wisler, each playing poorly on the back none as Fergus went on to win.

But the buzz that ran through the crowd as the two big names in golf inched closer together on the leader board proved one thing: the Nicklaus-Watson rivalry, at least in the minds of their fans, has taken on the kind of significance Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer had a decade ago.

Rivalries in golf are rare, mostly because players usually compete against the course. But those who insist that they always play just the course are not telling the truth.

Nicklaus was infuriated at the Masters this year when he learned that he and Watson would not be paired on the final day. Watson was just as disappointed.

"I always would rather have someone like Jack with me so I know what he's doing in a situation like that," Watson said. "I would rather not depend on the scoreboard or on hearing the crowd yell."

And, Watson admits, even after four years as the dominant player on the tour, beating Nicklaus is still special. "Any time you win it's special," he said. "But beating Jack is a little bit more because he's one of the greatest players."

Still, the Nicklaus-Watson rivalry exists more in the minds of those who watch than those who play. Basically, Watson and Nicklaus respect each other. They did have one tiff, last year at the U.S. Open, when Watson suggested that Nicklaus might retire if he won the tournament. When informed of the comment, Nicklaus angrily replied that Watson should mind his own business.

But those incidents are exceptional.Golfers have their differences, but they usually involve fast players becoming upset with slow players and straight arrows becoming upset with those who prefer partying to playing.

"Golf isn't really a sport that is given to rivalries, because you've got no control over what the other guy is doing," said Tom Kite. "You hit your shot and the other guy hits his. There's nothing you can do about what he does. It isn't like tennis or baseball or basketball where what you do directly affects what your opponent does."

Kite is one player who can talk about rivalries. Since joining the tour eight years ago, he has constantly been compared with Ben Crenshaw, his teammate at the University of Texas. Although Crenshaw was the name on the team, he and Kite alternated as the No. 1 player their last year and tied for the NCAA title.

"Back then we were very intense rivals, absolutely," said Kite, the memory still clear. "But when you come out here, if you start worrying about just one other player, six others will go right past you in about a second.

"I felt like I was in Ben's shadow for a while. Sure, it used to bother me. But after a while, as I became more mature, I realized there's nothing you can do about what people say, think or write anyway, so the best thing to do is just play within yourself. It's the only way to survive out here."

Kite is surviving very well. He is sixth on the money list this year, 24th on the all-time list. Does he keep track of his all-time statistics as compared to Crenshaw? "I know he's ahead of me," Kite said.

Kite also knows firsthand about the fast player-slow player rivalry. Last year during the Heritage Classic, Kite and Lanny Watkins were wired for sound by CBS-TV. In a weak moment, Kite, frustrated by the slow play of John Schroeder, said to a listening nation, "Jeez, why won't Schroeder play?"

That ended the CBS experiment with wiring players with mikes and started a less-than-friendly relationship between Kite and Schroeder. This week when a newspaper story depicted Kite as one of the tour's noncomplaining good guys, Schroeder, not mentioned in the story, came into the press room looking for the writer.

"How can you say he doesn't complain," Schroeder said, "when he complained about me playing slowly?"

Another sort of rivalry is created when a player joins the tour and is immediately compared with an existing star. Players call this "following the shadow."

The classic shadow is Tom Weiskopf, who followed Nicklaus at Ohio State and came onto the tour with a swing so graceful he was immediately labeled by many as the next Jack Nicklaus.

Fifteen years, one major title and numerous disappointments later, Weiskopf says he was always aware of the shadow. "I don't think it was fair to be compard with him," Weiskopf said. "I can play a golf shot as well as Jack Nicklaus can. But I didn't have the experience he had, I never have.

"This guy was a polished, professional player at 18. He played in the U.S. Open at 15 . . . I'm not making excuses, but I only played two major amateur tournaments before I turned pro, and that makes a difference.

"It's nice when people say flattering things about you in newspapers, but after a while you start believing them. What's important, though, is what you expect of yourself. When I didn't achieve those things I was supposed to, that's when the temperament adjective came up. When the world next superstar didn't become that, there had to be a reason."

Age spices rivalries. When the aging Palmer was losing his top spot to the young Nicklaus, people despied Nicklaus. Now Nicklaus is aging and Watson is pushing to the forefront. Watson will have to wait until his skills begin to erode and a young player challgenges his supremacy before he becomes the sentimental favorite.

And then, golf will have a new rivarly.They don't happen often, but when they do they lend spice to a game often criticized for being bland.