Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, five shots behind after two rounds, took command of the Open today.

That, at least, is one radical way of interpreting this day's play.

When the greatest players look at a scoreboard during the middle of a major championship, they ask themselves only one question: How many players are there ahead of me who can beat me?

For Watson and Nicklaus, the answer is: none.

Sure, they're both in a five-way tie for eighth place at par 144. Sure, they're five shots behind Bruce Devlin and three behind Larry Rinker.

But, the reasoning goes, Devlin and Rinker aren't going to win. And, despite his fine record, it's unlikely that Scott Simpson will, either.

Asked what he saw when he scanned the leaderboard, Nicklaus said: "I see seven fellows under par, and some pretty decent players at even par. But nobody's really in charge . . . I'm in a position where, if I play two good rounds, I feel that I have a very good chance of winning."

Watson and Nicklaus had such wildly different rounds, and rounds which so exemplified the current state of their games, that it was hard to tell what impact they would have.

Watson hit the ball hideously all day, yet he salvaged a round that he said "could easily have been in the mid-70s or higher." That's typical of Watson who, from 100 yards in, has the willpower and confidence to get up and down time after time.

Wild driving has repeatedly killed Watson's Open chances, particularly one bad round. Today may have been that bad round; Watson hit only five fairways. "I got quite a few lucky lies in the rough . . . and I made a bunch of putts," he said, beaming as though he'd found a lucky charm. "It was a fortunate round of golf for me . . .I'm heading to the practice tee now."

If Watson's devil club is almost always his prone-to-hook driver, then it's the putter that torments Nicklaus.

Told that he'd made only one putt longer than five feet, while missing two baby putts of three and four feet, Nicklaus said: "Oh, did I make one?"

Part of Nicklaus' problem is that the bumpy Pebble Beach greens reward bravely struck putts that can't be jogged off line in the final inches to the hole. Nicklaus, by contrast, says: "When you're not putting particularly well, you want to leave the first putts so tight that you don't have any (second) putt left to miss."

Consequently, putt after putt of Nicklaus' are turning an inch outside the hole at the last agonizing instant, while Watson's gutty putts keep slamming into the back of the hole.

Conversely, Nicklaus is driving brilliantly while Watson is spending more time in the hay than a farmer.

Watson may have dodged his one Open-ruining round today, while Nicklaus may have missed his best chance of the week for a spectacular tournament-deciding round. On the other hand, if Watson's driver doesn't mend its ways, no mortal can continue to putt as Watson did this afternoon. And, if Nicklaus continues to play tee to green as he has, sooner or later, some of those eight- 12-foot putts will have to drop.

Andy Bean quit after nine holes because he thought perhaps he'd benefited from a questionable ruling. Bean thought maybe he'd accidentally stepped on his ball on the fifth hole. Officials didn't penalize him and he said "it was weighing on my mind."