MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND, JULY 15 -- For several of the more glamorous names in golf, the 116th British Open offers the opportunity to wash away recent failures and current fears.

People such as Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer in the field of 153 all have more than usual at stake when the Open begins Thursday, and much to prove to themselves.

The international circuit has become so intense in recent years that no one player, or any group of two or three, dominates. As incredible as it may seem, there have been 17 different winners of the last 17 Grand Slam tournaments, a stretch of more than four years.

Further accentuating the fluctuating fortunes in golf, the leader of the U.S. earnings list is Paul Azinger, who had not won a tournament prior to 1987 and is competing in his first British Open.

So for all their fame and all the past glory, Ballesteros, Langer, Norman and Watson, the four top favorites, all have cause for concern and reason for doubt.

Ballesteros, a two-time Open champion, has not won a major in three years. Langer never has won the Open despite top-three finishes each of the last three years. Norman, the defending champion, has gone winless on the U.S. tour this year. And Watson has not won anywhere in three years.

"Not winning for so long hasn't exactly been a fun time," said Watson, winner of the Open the last time it was played in Muirfield in 1980. "I think probably it has taken more of a toll on my friends and family than it has on me."

Watson gave indication he was ready to win again by finishing second behind Scott Simpson in the U.S. Open last month, and he likes Muirfield. Watson has won the British five times, one shy of the record set by Harry Vardon at the turn of the century.

Ballesteros and Norman both spoke of how much the pressures of golf changed their personalities.

"Somewhere out there I lost my youth," said Ballesteros. "I never realized how much the winning and the money would change my life.

"I have seen recent pictures and I look as if I am scowling all the time. It is the pressure. I expect too much from myself. I seek absolute perfection but I am a human being, not a machine."

Norman found it more difficult to deal with the demands on his time following a 1986 season in which he led the U.S. earnings list with $653,296, and he recently asked Watson for advice.

"I was trying too hard," Norman said. "I was trying to make 1987 a better year than 1986 instead of letting it happen."

Three-time British titlist Jack Nicklaus, Simpson, Masters champion Larry Mize and 1986 U.S. Open winner Raymond Floyd are among 34 Americans entered.