SAN FRANCISCO, JUNE 19 -- Misery loves company, so Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus played together at Olympic Club in Wednesday's final practice round before the U.S. Open. Perhaps their bond was mutual pity or nostalgia, or maybe just desperation.

In their careers, the two best golfers of the past quarter century have won a total of 102 PGA Tour events, plus eight British Opens. However, in the past three seasons, they've won only one tournament. "I was terrible. He was worse," said Nicklaus.

Neither would have guessed that, at the midpoint of this 87th Open, Watson would be tied for the lead with Mark Wiebe after rounds of 72 and 65 for 137.

Nicklaus was in comfortable position just one shot behind at 138, in a pack with Jim Thorpe, John Cook, Tommy Nakajima and Bernhard Langer.

"You don't look so bad for an old man," said Watson to Nicklaus in that atrocious practice round as both sprayed shots toward Oakland and San Jose.

"So, you're finding out what it feels like to be 37, Watson," retorted Nicklaus, 47 "Just let me be 22 again for a week."

"No, just four days," interjected Watson's caddie, Bruce Edwards.

That's the way it went all day. Silly jokes and memories of the days a decade ago when they owned the sport and dueled all over the earth, from Georgia to Scotland.

"I'm sure playing with Jack helped me. It got both our juices going. We were needling each other about the game and ourselves," said Watson after making six birdies in what he called one of the 10 best rounds of his career.

"It didn't hurt me any," said Nicklaus after his 68, which included three 20-foot birdie putts, six nervy saves of par with three- to eight-foot putts and only one three-putt bogey. "If a guy playing like {Watson} can shoot that score {65}, I guess I can, too. That's tongue in cheek, fellas."

The U.S. Open has seldom had a more tangled leader board or a more wide-open weekend ahead. Watson's and Nicklaus' chances are little better than a couple of dozen others. Still, on this misty, windless day, their presence brought excitement and promise to Olympic, a course that, in two previous Opens, specialized in the impossible.

The day's interloper was Wiebe, who missed a 15-foot birdie putt at the 18th hole when he had a chance for the outright lead. Since the 29-year-old Wiebe has only won two regular pro events in his career, it would seem judicious to forget him entirely. Except that Jack Fleck beat Ben Hogan here in 1955. Olympic loves to plays games.

In an amazing and exhausting round of 67, Wiebe had five birdies, an eagle (with a wedge from 114 yards at the 390-yard 12th hole) and four bogeys -- three of them in a row at Nos. 4, 5 and 6. A college golfer at San Jose State, Wiebe "always played Olympic anytime I could get on -- bright and early. Maybe 20 times in all. If there's an upper hand to have, that's it. Olympic plays differently every day, depending on the weather."

Although the headline "Unknown Tied for Open Lead" is a recurrent theme in every golf generation, it hardly seems compelling at the moment, with many of the most tantalizing names in the sport hotly in contention. First-round leader Ben Crenshaw (72) and Masters champion Larry Mize are just one shot behind Nicklaus at 139, tied with Scott Simpson and Bob Eastwood. Crenshaw seems bummed out by his ball-striking {"not something to build on . . . too anxious"} but Mize (68) caught fire with five birdies after sinking a 57-yard wedge shot at the fifth hole.

Craig Stadler and Mac O'Grady, who once reached the lead at 4 under par before collapsing immediately, were in at even-par 140. British Open champion Greg Norman (69), defending U.S. Open champion Ray Floyd and PGA winner Bob Tway were all at 141 -- a very ritzy address.

Amid all the midtournament convolutions, talk of Watson and Nicklaus tended to monopolize attention here.

"If I should, perchance, win, it would be a big asterisk in my career. It would mean . . . well . . . I'm back," said Watson, who birdied Nos. 3, 9, 11, 14, 16 and 18 with gigantic Watsonian putts of 50, 30, 25, eight, six and three feet. His only bogey came on the 17th from the same front bunker from which he blasted into the hole for birdie on Thursday.

"The trap got me today, but holing out from there in the first round, when I was 3 over par and headed for 4 over, has been the key shot in the tournament for me so far," said Watson.

For the past three years, Watson says he has felt like he was "climbing up a hill on sand" to get back to the top of his sport, but he maintains that, "I never had much doubt that I would. Just a matter of when."

That "when" still is very much in doubt since Watson's biggest problem has been an inability to keep his long swing, which he's revamped again this week, in synch for four rounds. For the moment, his all-week tinkering is past. As he stood over his tee shot at No. 14, he suddenly felt so comfortable that, for the first time, he decided to "turn it all loose." The result was a downhill 325-yard drive that set up a birdie.

Watson's confidence is so high that he talks of what "a pair of 67s" might mean. "I feel that I can continue to do this," said Watson, who thought 280 would win this Open until he saw how the USGA had uncharacteristically softened the course with water before the first round. "I misjudged the {difficulty of the} course," he said. "Still, I'll be surprised if the winning score is any lower than 4 or 5 under par."

For Nicklaus, who became the oldest man to win the Masters last year at 46, the issue of remaining in the hunt is far more problematic. "I'm not playing very well," he said. "I've got four or five swing thoughts. I just don't know what's going to come out {each time}. I'm doing a lot of things right around the greens. I'm doing the hard part of the game -- the chipping and putting. The scoring. It's the easy part of the game I'm not doing -- hitting the golf ball. That drives me batty. With age, you should lose your wildness, not get wilder . . . "