SAN FRANCISCO -- "Come on, baby." This was Tom Watson at the tee on the 71st hole of the U.S. Open Sunday, coaxing the golf ball he'd just smacked to please, pretty please, hold a tilted fairway slick as linoleum. If another legend in decline was going to be weepily miraculous, he'd better get cracking.

Jack Nicklaus in the Masters last spring; Watson in the Open this summer? Maybe. Just maybe. Or perhaps the ghosts of Olympic Club would strike once more.

"It's kind of nice to be nervous again," Watson had admitted in the clubhouse before his day's work began. Meaning that being in contention for anything important, let alone a major, was a new and exhilarating experience for him.

How would he do? The Watson in ascension was shaky in such a situation, blowing to 79 the final round of the 1974 Open after grabbing the 54-hole lead with a 69. Soon, his nerves and his game would be matchless. Having shot himself off the leader board the last few years, what would Watson do now?

He would do well. Very well. Better than Arnold Palmer did here down the stretch in the '66 Open, in fact. Much better than Ben Hogan did here for 72 holes in the '55 Open. He would play just well enough to be disappointed, but not sad. He would finish second, but not exactly lose.

"I have to win to prove I'm back," said Watson, as champion Scott Simpson was caressing an Open trophy that includes Watson's '82 triumph. "That's the name of the game. But I have nothing to be ashamed about.

"It's good being back in the hunt again, to be capable of winning and stay under control. Not as much as I'd like . . . but a little bit of the old magic is coming back. The old magic is right there."

Right there. But not totally evident. Who would have imagined that Watson's driver would be more reliable than his putter the last 36 holes? Who could figure Watson three-putting the first hole each of the final two rounds?

"Two or three bad putts both days," he said. "Looking back, those shots cost me."

Watson three-putted the first hole Sunday and three-putted the fifth hole. When he missed a makeable birdie at No. 4, he asked for a practice take-over after holing out. This hacker's routine is permissible in the Open.

"Made it, too," he said.

Three over par after five holes, out of a lead he held by a stroke going into the round. Watson knew what his agonizing fans did not: "I was beginning to feel an inner calm."

From resembling an old Watson, he affected the Watson of old fairly soon. Birdies at the eighth and ninth holes got him back in the lead. He matched a Simpson birdie putt on 15 with one of his own on 14.

"I hardly missed a {tee or approach} shot all day," he boasted.

Open history insists that a Hall of Famer will not win at Olympic. Hogan loses to Jack Fleck; Palmer eventually backs up past Billy Casper; Watson fails to catch Simpson.

Rarely does a man do what Simpson did late Sunday with the Open on the line: shoot 3-under for the final five holes. At those times, the driver feels cumbersome as a two-by-four, the putter as tough to pull back as a jackhammer.

Ask Seve Ballesteros, who leaped into contention and then slipped back. Or Ben Crenshaw, who went bogey-bogey after grabbing a share of the lead. Or Larry Mize, whose fantasies of a grand slam got slammed with bogeys on three of the last seven holes.

"One day the Open should be held with no fairways," an unusually amiable Ballesteros said. "Only rough and greens. I could have a very good chance to win."

With the pressure most intense, Watson was fine -- 3-under for the final 11 holes; Simpson was sensational, passing Watson with a birdie at 16 and making him birdie one of the final tough and teasing holes for a tie.

Watson fell three inches short.

"This much," he said, holding his right thumb and forefinger less than the width of this story apart. A slight grunt on his putter at 18 might have done it.

When Watson yelled to his ball on the 17th tee, it obeyed, holding the fairway. The tying birdie was out of the question, anyway, even though he'd chipped for just that in the first round. But a killer bogey could easily be avoided.

Watson made sure Simpson had putted out before teeing off on 18. He'd won his Open with a miracle shot, that chipin on the 71st hole in '82; he'd fallen short the next Open, to Larry Nelson, when an equally improbable chip rolled over the cup on the 72nd hole.

This time, Watson couldn't pull off an up-and-down from 113 yards. So his Open record for the '80s reads: one first, two seconds and a third.

"This renews my resolve about my career," he said. "The afterburners are turned on, you might say. I'm disappointed, but I didn't throw it away."

Watson wants to keep his four-day surge going, choosing not to skip the next tour stop as he had planned.

"Let's go play for it," he said. "Let's win it and get on the Ryder Cup team. Let's beat those guys across the ocean." Left unsaid was the fact that his favorite major, the British Open, gets played on one of his favorite courses (Muirfield) in a month. Having won five of those titles, he would like to recapture a once-familiar habit.