Tom Watson glanced far away down the fairway from the first tee at Royal Birkdale, to a tiny patch of green in a brown sea of wiry rough. His eyes turning toward Jack Nicklaus, and then to the club Nicklaus had just used, Watson bellowed:

"You mean you can hit a three-wood into that little area four days in a row?"

Maybe, now that the championship committee for the 112th British Open has gone soft. Less than 24 hours before Christy O'Connor strikes the first official blow, at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, the course has been given a benign trim.

So loud and long have such as Seve Ballesteros, Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw and others whined that officials decided either to widen the "semirough" or eliminate some green-side trash on four holes.

Which means there is a semichance this he-man's course won't be a 6,968-yard ironing board after all. Ballesteros and the other belters might get reacquainted with their wooden clubs, if this British bash continues to be staged in an American atmosphere.

Royal Birkdale is a wonderful links course, but without links-like conditions. No wind as yet. Soft, even spongy, greens. When a man can make a five-iron shot snap to attention, as Watson insists has been possible on many greens, this tournament starts to resemble Quad Cities with lots of accents.

"If there's no wind," said Watson, "it'll take 12 or 13 under to win."

That's on a track with four par-4s of at least 450 yards and three par-3s of at least 184. The birdie holes are the three par-5s, none of which stretches more than 526 yards.

"No matter what they do (to try to preserve precious par)," Lee Trevino said, "somebody's gonna eat this course alive."

Before the mowers got active late this afternoon, Hale Irwin had made eight birdies during a practice round. And Andy Bean and Arnold Palmer were swishing their putters in frustration, having just made birdie on 17 and lost the hole to a Tom Weiskopf eagle.

Defending champion Watson, who won at Troon, and Ballesteros are the only players listed by nearly all the betting shops at less than 16-1. Both are 5-1. Then comes the usual herd of Nicklaus and Ray Floyd (16-1), Crenshaw (20-1), Craig Stadler (22-1), Larry Nelson and Britain's Nick Faldo (25-1), Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins (28-1) and David Graham, Irwin, Greg Norman and Trevino (33-1).

The mission before teeoff for one hacker will be to contact oddsmaker William Hill in Liverpool and invest several pounds on Hal Sutton. He listed the leading American tour money winner at 40-1 today.

If all the grumbling got some course alterations, it also revealed much about each player's game at this least-appreciated of the four major championships.

When Ballesteros complains about not being able to practice his magic around the greens, it means his iron approach play is getting erratic.

When Crenshaw frets about Royal Birkdale being "just too tight for a links course," his driver probably is misbehaving once more.

"When I say the greens are spongy," Watson said, "I mean that a putt from exactly the same place might break left one time and right another."

He smiled, then added:

"I guess that's the excuse someone not real comfortable putting will give you."

Watson, whose four British Open victories all have come on Scottish courses, said he is playing well enough to win. He admitted final-round putting cost him victory in the Western Open two weeks ago, but sounded as if he were about two 12-footers away from snapping that slump.

"I don't like to see too much water on a links course," he said, referring mostly to the greens. "A very firm, very dry course means there's more judgment involved, a lot more skill."

It's hard to find anything that makes Royal Birkdale unique among British Open courses. It has none of the golf roots tradition of St. Andrews and little of the suffocating exclusivity and raw beauty of Muirfield. There is general agreement that Royal Lytham is the toughest of the seven Open courses.

Birkdale does have some impressive carries over dunes. But it may well be the Open course closest to an American creation, with relatively flat fairways and greens. Plop Congressional near the cotton-candy machines in Ocean City and let the weeds grow knee-high and you have a decent picture of Royal Birkdale.

As with every British Open, this is a huckster's haven. Stroll along Palmer Promenade past tent after tent filled with good spirit and better spirits. Hang a right at Nicklaus Newk (corner), then a left along Watson Way and there is enough equipment and garb to outfit every Open winner from young Tom Morris on.

"My emotions run high four times a year," said Crenshaw, "and this is one of them."

"If you played strictly for the money," said Irwin, "you'd go somewhere else. But our game is steeped in more tradition than most others, so this is one of the tournaments you want especially to win.

"Yes, it's probably the weakest field for any major. But you always have to beat the same players here and in the other three. It used to be a handful of players; now it's a gang."

This was the final day the gang could tinker, and nobody did that with quite so much flair as Peter Jacobsen. At the 12th, the hole Watson calls "the best par-3 in golf over here," Jacobsen was slightly short of the pin with consecutive four-iron shots.

He demanded a three-iron and another golf ball from his caddy. The next time the ball came to rest was inside the cup. When you work at it, golf is such a simple game.