MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND, JULY 11 -- An ability to take a positive view of a heartbreaking defeat could bring Tom Watson one of the more cherished records in golf.

Watson, winless in three years, suddenly re-emerged as a threat in the U.S. Open last month before Scott Simpson beat him by one shot. However disappointed he may have been at losing, Watson was pleased with his performance and can approach the 116th British Open, starting Thursday, with new spirit.

Of Watson's 36 career victories, five have come in the British Open, a venerable event which had its beginnings in 1860 in Prestwick, Scotland, and offers a $975,000 purse this year. Only Harry Vardon, who reigned at the turn of the century, has won the Open six times, and Watson can earn his place in history by equaling this mark.

"I'll be there thinking I can win again," Watson said. "It would be wrong to say now that I'm back. I only finished second in the U.S. Open, so I still have something to prove. But it felt good to be back in the hunt again. The old magic is right there."

To further buoy his spirits, Watson returns to where he won the last Open, at Muirfield, by four shots over runner-up Lee Trevino in 1980. Americans have won 12 of the last 20 British Opens, but none since Watson in 1983.

Ben Crenshaw, who placed third behind Watson and Trevino in 1980, is considered the best bet of the American contingent. Similar to Watson, he went through a difficult stage following his triumph in the 1984 Masters, but he is happy and healthy again and winning.

Three-time champion Jack Nicklaus, who so likes this course he named his own Ohio layout Muirfield Village, and Trevino, a two-time winner, are expected to play. Tom Kite, still seeking his first major, and Fred Couples, both winners on the U.S. tour this year, played in the Scottish Open to prepare for the British.

Seven American golfers, including 1981 champion Bill Rogers and last year's top U.S. finisher, Gary Koch, have withdrawn. Others pulling out were Hubert Green, Hale Irwin, Joey Sindelar, John Mahaffey and Doug Tewell.

Others of the many Americans on the exempt list and expected to play include Simpson; Payne Stewart, runner-up to Sandy Lyle in 1985; Raymond Floyd, who has won all the majors except this one; Masters champion Larry Mize, and 1987 PGA Tour money leader Paul Azinger.

Australia's Greg Norman, who won at Turnberry last year in heavy wind and rain, is expected to make a strong title defense. Spain's Seve Ballesteros and West Germany's Bernhard Langer are major threats.