Tom Watson tapped in his final putt on the 18th green today at the Merion Golf Club and smiled in acknowledgement of the applause coming from the gallery. The applause was artificial. So was the smile. Tom Watson was upset.

Through 14 holes today he was one under par, close to the leaders, playing steady, unspectacular golf. He was two under par for the tournament and there were only five players ahead of him.

Then came 15, probably the easiest of Merion's last five holes, a 378-yard par 4. Like most players, Watson hit a three-wood.

Now, with one horrid swing, Watson took him out of contention. He duck-hooked the ball off the tee and it flew over the rough and beyond the out-of-bounds stakes.

Watson stood still for a moment, a grimace on his face.He knew immediately that he had just about finished himself for a 10th straight time in the tournament he wants to win above all others.

He teed up the ball again and this time found the fairway. He hit a wedge to the back of the green, 30 feet from the pin. From there, he three-putted from a triple-bogey 7. Just like that, Watson was eight shots behind George Burns.

He fought back briefly, with a birdie at 16, but missed the green at 17 for another bogey, then three-putted 18 for 73, leaving him at two over par, 212.

Watson quickly signed his scorecard, then instead of taking the normal path to the locker room, he walked off the front of the green to the area where vans pick up players to take them to the driving range.

A couple of youngsters ran up and asked for autographs. "Not right now," Watson said quietly. A couple of reporters arrived. "I've got to go right to the range," Watson said. "I can't talk now."

His tone was even but his eyes were burning with frustration. It grew worse when the woman sitting in the waiting van informed him that she wasn't going to the range and he would have to wait.

Watson walked behind a restraining barrier to avoid the autograph seekers. A little girl made it past the security guard for a moment and held her program out to Watson. He smiled, leaned down and signed.

"I just didn't play well," he said, too polite to refuse to answer questions when he had nowhere to escape. "I hit a bad shot at 15. The last five holes are the only part of this course that are tough, the rest is pretty easy.

"This course needs Open conditions to be tough. Today, with the rain, there aren't Open conditions, the greens aren't very fast. There should be a lot of low scores out there."

USGA official P.J. Boatwright came by. "P.J.," Watson said, trying to sound enthusiastic. "Had fun out there today, it's fun to play that fast. We got around in about 3 hours and 20 minutes."

Someone asked Watson if he was going to the range to take out his frustrations. "No, that's not it," Watson insisted. "I've got an idea about something and I want to get out-there and work on it before it rains."

Then, finally he let some frustration show. "I'd be out there now, if I could get a van out here."

The van arrived and Watson was gone. In more ways than one.

Jim Thorpe, the Thursday leader, had a solid 70 that left him at one under par 209. Given Thorpe's record this year ($7,146 in earnings) his spot in the top 10 through 54 holes is remarkable.

"I felt like I could have been in with a better round but I couldn't make the putts today," Thorpe said. "Playing this well is going to build my confidence for the rest of the year."

Thorpe said today's round was much easier after suffering with first-round leader jitters on Friday. "I was much calmer today, I wasn't nervous like Friday. I slept a lot better last night."