Tom Watson was too polite to wave the old man off. He had been standing in front of Watson's locker for several minutes, asking questions. Watson, having just finished his last practice round before the British Open begins here Thursday, answered carefully and seriously.

But the man went one step too far. "If you had your second shot at the Road Hole last year to do over," he asked, "what club would you hit this time?"

Watson's easy smile disappeared. His jaw set. "I would hit a two-iron, just like last time," he said, brown eyes flashing with intensity. "I was 210 yards away, into the wind with an uphill lie. What would you have hit?"

There was no reply to the rhetorical question. Watson's voice softened. "Suffice to say, I'd like another chance to hit that two-iron."

Watson hit that shot almost one year ago exactly. It led to a bogey at St. Andrews' 17th hole -- the famed Road Hole -- and that led to a second-place finish in the British Open. Watson has won the British Open five times. He has won eight major tournaments. But he may have wanted last year's tournament more than any other championship.

Watson has a keen sense of the game's history. A win last year would have given him victories on all five of the Scottish courses on which the Open is played, something no one ever has done. It would have given him six Open titles, equalling Harry Vardon. And, the course was St. Andrews, where the game was born.

But Watson blew a lead on the last day, bogeyed the Road Hole when his two-iron flew over the green and landed against the stone wall behind it, and lost to Severiano Ballesteros.

Today, Watson insisted that last year will not be on his mind when he and 152 others begin play at Royal St. George's Thursday morning in the 114th edition of golf's oldest and most traditional tournament.

"I've failed before and I'll fail again," he said. "But I've also succeeded before and expect to succeed again. I learned to lose before I learned to win. I can handle it."

In the 12 months since that warm, breezy day at St. Andrews, Watson has not won a tournament. For a man with 31 career titles in the United States, in addition to his victories here, that is a major slump.

Last month, Watson missed the cut at the U.S. Open for the second time in 13 years. "I really didn't hit the ball badly the first day," he said. "But I just couldn't buy a putt."

A familiar lament from a slumping golfer. Watson knew that. And so, when his father, the man who taught him the game as a small boy, suggested it might be time to change his swing, Watson took the idea seriously. He always has had one of golf's most adventurous swings, long and sweeping, and he has spent a lot of his life making spectacular recoveries from impossible places to which his swing has taken him.

But two months shy of 36, two years removed from his last major title, Watson thought his father's suggestion was well-timed. He flew to Dallas and spent several days with his longtime mentor, Byron Nelson.

"We worked on one thing," Watson said today, "shortening my golf swing."

This week, Watson will begin to find out if the change has worked. After his failure at the U.S. Open, he took a month off from tournament play. He worked with Nelson, practiced, traveled with his family and tried to build himself to a peak for this tournament.

"I always feel good teeing it up over here," he said. "The game is different. It feels different, smells different. You have to deal with the wind all the time. Sometimes it's your guide, sometimes it's your enemy, sometimes it's your friend."

Watson has changed putters twice this year to try to break a putting slump that he says has lasted "a couple of years." He has shortened his swing and is concentrating on trying to stay behind the ball.

He has played this course four times in the last week and has felt a little better about his game each day. Like the other pros, he is not enamored with the course but says he likes the conditions here now -- dry, fast and hard -- much better than in 1981, when the course had been watered heavily and was green and slow.

"If I play a little bit better than I did today, I like my chances," Watson said. "I'm not very far away at all."

Watson knows he is being watched carefully this week. His success here over the years has been so spectacular that a poor showing undoubtedly would be regarded as a signal that he is not merely slumping, but slipping. Although 36 certainly isn't old, Arnold Palmer won his last major at 34. Of course, Lee Trevino won the PGA last August at 45.

Players say concentration and not getting the yips with the putter are the keys to continued success as a golfer ages. Those always have been Watson's strengths: bold putting and superb concentration.

"I'm probably like any other golfer in that if I can make a couple of putts I feel like it will get the rest of my game going," he said. "My concentration is fine. I'm just like anyone else not playing well, a little bit frustrated.

"Putting has always been the bellwether of my game. I need to putt well. I feel like I'm putting the ball better now, stroking it a lot better. Of course here, if you don't hit the ball well, putting doesn't matter. You have to go out there and hit it and hit it and hit it."

Most people here think the three men most likely to do that are Ballesteros, Masters champion Bernhard Langer and Greg Norman. Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Trevino still are respected, but considered a step behind.

And there are the dark horses: Britain's Nick Faldo, who will turn 28 Thursday and has been the subject of two books without ever coming close to a major title; Corey Pavin, fourth on the U.S. money list and the kind of straight hitter who can do well here; Peter Jacobsen, who also is a straight hitter, and Paul Way, the 22-year-old Englishman who may become the star Faldo never has been.

The last time the tournament was played on this windy course that sits on Sandwich Bay near the English Channel -- 1981 -- was the only time in the 1980s that Watson finished out of contention in a British Open, tying for 28th place. He won in 1980, 1982 and 1983 before last year's second place. This is his tournament. It was expected to be his last year, too.

"That's behind me now," he insisted. "I'm just thinking about trying to win it this year. I just forced some putts instead of stroking them, that's all."

But, given his feeling for golf's traditions, didn't losing that way on that course, hurt just a little bit more?

Watson said nothing for a moment. Then, he smiled and took a deep breath. "Put it this way," he said, "I can't wait till the Open returns there again."