If a golf tournament can have a theme 48 hours before the first ball is struck, the 1985 British Open has this one: Where are the Americans?

Yes, Tom Watson is here, fiddling with a new putter in an attempt to break a year-long slump. Yes, Jack Nicklaus is here, confident after a second-place finish in the recent Canadian Open and happy after a hole in one during today's practice round.

In addition, Lee Trevino, Fuzzy Zoeller, Craig Stadler, Tom Kite and Bill Rogers, who won here at Royal St. George's in 1981, are present.

But two things are noticeably different, even with all those familiar names: the second echelon of U.S. players is missing and those in the first are not considered top contenders on the eve of the tournament.

"I think a lot of guys stayed home because of the golf course," Nicklaus said today. "Not that it's a bad golf course, but it doesn't have the tradition of St. Andrews, Muirfield or Birkdale. I'll play here every year, no matter where the tournament is held. But a lot of guys don't feel that way."

Among those in that category are Curtis Strange, leading money winner on the PGA Tour this year at $530,000; Fred Couples, who finished fourth last year at St. Andrews; Raymond Floyd; Jerry Pate; Hale Irwin; Calvin Peete; Hal Sutton; Johnny Miller; Hubert Green, and U.S. Open champion Andy North. All skipped the tournament.

Even Arnold Palmer, who helped make this tournament great with victories in 1961 and 1962, stayed home for the first time in 25 years.

Why?

"I think a lot of it gets back to money," said Peter Jacobsen, who had to qualify the first time he played here three years ago. "I came and I'll always come because to me the Open is one of the events, if not the event in golf. I could never imagine having the chance to play and not doing it.

"But a lot of guys look at the money and not the tradition. Fifteen years ago, your year was judged by how many tournaments you won. Now it's judged by how much money you won. A guy can make $150,000 and never finish higher than fourth. It's too bad that guys think that way, but I think a lot of them do."

In all, there are only 32 U.S. players in the field of 153. Only eight of the top 20 money winners on the U.S. tour are here. And, for the first time in memory, the two given the best chance to win are Europeans: defending champion Severiano Ballesteros and Masters champion Bernhard Langer.

That probably would not be the case if Strange were here. "I'm surprised and disappointed that there isn't a better American representation," said Watson, who has won this tournament five times and was second last year. "It could make my job a lot easier, though, because I was going to bet on Curtis to win.

"I can't offer a reasonable answer why so many guys aren't here. In Curtis' case, it can't possibly be the cost, because he's won over $500,000 this year. He could have chartered the Concorde to make the trip if he wanted."

Strange said last week he wanted to take some time off to be with his family in Williamsburg. He was unavailable to comment today.

Gary Player, who has won this tournament three times, also is baffled by top Americans who choose not to come over. "Men like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino have all understood the importance of the British Open," he said. "Others apparently don't.

"It certainly isn't for me to tell Curtis Strange what is right for him but I think he's making a mistake. He's going to break the earnings record (set by Watson in 1980) but, if he won the British Open, it would be worth five times to him in income what he's making playing in the States."

Ballesteros admitted he was sorry Strange had skipped the tournament, adding, "Maybe they (the Americans) are afraid of the course or maybe they don't want to travel. I do think Strange should be here, though." Nicklaus offers one more theory on the non-American invasion: "Look at the list of guys not coming. I think most of them don't feel they have a realistic chance of winning. If they did, they would be here. How many in the top 20 who aren't here have won the tournament?

"If a guy thinks he can win, he'll be here regardless of the cost, regardless of the course, regardless of the inconvenience. But if he doesn't really think he can win and he's going to play most years, then this year, playing a nontraditional course, would be the one to skip."

Given Watson's prolonged slump (he has not won a tournament in more than a year) and given the rise of such players as Ballesteros -- who comes here off two straight victories in Europe -- Langer and Australian Greg Norman, the odds seem excellent that a non-American will win here for only the fourth time in the last 16 years.

And that concerns the U.S. players who have come here. "They do some flag-waving over here," said Jacobson. "So you really do want to see our guys do well. I know I pay more attention to see how Lanny (Wadkins), Tom Watson and Lee Trevino are doing when I'm here than when I'm at home. I dream about winning this tournament and I really think some day I will win it. But if I can't, I'd like to see another American do it."

Rogers did it four years ago. That was the year Royal St. George's was returned to the Open rotation after a 32-year absence. The club is about 90 miles south of London on the east coast of England. Although it is, like the Scottish courses, a links, bounded by Sandwich Bay (which leads out to the English Channel) it has none of the Scottish history and lots of blind shots.

"I've spent the last two days just trying to figure out which chimney or flagpole to line my shots up on," said Nicklaus, who shot 83 in the first round here in 1981. "It's definitely a different golf course."

Next year, the Open returns to Scotland, at Turnberry, site of the famous Watson-Nicklaus duel in 1977. Will the Americans be back then?

"On the traditional Scottish course, I think you'll see everyone playing," Nicklaus said. "Put the tournament at St. Andrews, and you'll see 20 out of the top 20 playing."