ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND, JULY 18 -- Mark Calcavecchia has the trophy, Curtis Strange has the record, Hale Irwin has the U.S. Open cup, Nick Faldo has the mantle of dominance. Everybody has something, and they will need the full weight of their considerable reputations in this rarest of events, a British Open on The Old Course.

A field of 156, full of past and present major champions, will begin play today on this green and misty links, where even the most accomplished players can wander unsuspectingly into awkward, ruinous places. Of all the personalities vying for preeminence here, none may be as impressive as the par-72 course, which doesn't favor old, young, American or European so much as it does the studious and the lucky.

If there is a key to St. Andrews it is this: an intimate knowledge of how best to negotiate its subtle contradictions. Tony Lema, the 1964 champion, was the only player to win an Open at St. Andrews in his first attempt. The oldest player to win here was James Braid, who was 40 when he won his fifth Open title in 1910.

That would seem to make the middle generation the favorites, the cadre of players in their prime led by Faldo of Great Britain, two-time U.S. Open champion Strange, Greg Norman of Australia, and Seve Ballesteros of Spain, who was the last to win here in 1984. Or a first-time champion could come from a talented second tier represented by the likes of Paul Azinger, Ian Woosnam, 1978 St. Andrews runner-up Tom Kite, or Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, the handsome 24-year-old son of a Basque greenskeeper who is projected as the next great.

But if a sound working knowledge is the most important asset, that could let some hopefuls out, such as 30-year-old defending champion Calcavecchia, who has played only eight rounds here and is relying largely on maps. Good sense demands you go left off the tee and avoid bunkers at all costs, but that only means longer, more difficult approaches into the expansive double greens, some of them narrow and severely undulating, others nearly an acre. Calcavecchia casually maintained one practice round would be enough, but there also was a note of respect in his voice.

"It's one of the greatest, if not the greatest, places I've ever seen," he said. "It's not the hardest course in the world, but there's something about it."

As owner of the course record 62 (shot during the Dunhill Cup in 1987), Strange has a useful sense of proprietorship at St. Andrews. He had the record scorecard made into a silver trophy, and the original is in the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse. He has been winless and struggling somewhat in a season that was largely consumed by his desire to win a third straight U.S. Open title, but with a disappointing tie for 21st behind him, he was suddenly gripped with a possessiveness about St. Andrews.

"There aren't too many course records that you think about, but having it at St. Andrews, you cherish that," he said. "If anything came from that round, it's the feeling that I can shoot a good round here."

Ballesteros also is hoping his affection for the course will help gather a game that has been disorganized. The Spaniard is uncharacteristically tentative, lacking the aggressiveness that produced his victory here in 1984, which included a masterful 5-iron from the rough to the green at the infamous 17th Road Hole for a crucial par-4, and then a birdie on the 18th, while Tom Watson flew the 17th green and landed by a stone wall, for a bogey.

Ballesteros has won just once this year, tied for 33rd in the U.S. Open, and missed the cut at the Kemper Open. He arrived at St. Andrews after lazing around at home in Spain, fishing and watching the Tour de France. His chances depend on whether he can resummon the surehandednes he had around the course in '84, when he landed in just one bunker all week, and he said the most telling round may be the first, if he can get off to a fast start and raise his confidence.

"It's not been a very good year, but there's still half a year to go and anything can happen," he said. "One week can change things around 100 percent. Nothing is wrong with my game or swing, it's a matter of confidence, that's all."

The premium St. Andrews places on experience means that a curious trend could continue. In the last nine American PGA Tour events, the average age of the winners has been 40. That is in large part due to 45-year-old Irwin's back-to-back victories in the U.S. Open and the Buick Classic in June.

Irwin last played this tournament in 1984, but has returned with a chance to accomplish a rare "double" of back-to-back U.S. and British Opens. "I'd dearly love to win this tournament and there is no better time than now," he said.

The last player to win a double was Watson in 1982, joining the elite company of Lee Trevino in 1971, Ben Hogan in 1953, Gene Sarazen in 1932, and Bobby Jones in 1930 and 1926. Watson, 40, has won just one tournament since 1984, but the resurgence of Irwin, who had been winless since 1985, raised his hopes. Watson has his own piece of history to pursue, a sixth title that would tie him with Harry Vardon.

"The most important thing is just to win, which I haven't done for a long time," Watson said. "Everybody said if Hale Irwin could win at 45, I could do it at 40."

Then there are the so-called old and infirm, probably not a wise way to regard two-time champion Trevino and three-time champion Nicklaus, those unquenchable 50-year-olds. Trevino has won six tournaments on the senior tour, and remains one of the most deft wind players anywhere, even if he talks himself down. "I'm no threat to anybody," he said.

Nicklaus proved he can still contend in a major championship with his sixth-place finish at the Masters. And surely nobody has a more intimate knowledge of St. Andrews than he does. He first came here in 1964, and won two of his titles on this site, in 1970 and 1978. Nobody is more loath to slip into seniordom.

It was Nicklaus who may have summed up the significance of this British Open when he discussed the players capable of exerting the dominance he once did. Faldo has made the most convincing claim in the last three years with his two straight Masters titles and the '87 British Open, in addition to two runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open. But Strange and Ballesteros keep interfering.

"I thrive on the majors," Faldo said. "They're the most important things in my career at the moment."

The oft-beaten Norman has regained his conviction with two victories this season. He has proved at least at the British that he is major championship caliber, with his title in 1986 and his loss to Calcavecchia in last year's playoff at Royal Troon. But what he hasn't entirely proven is that he can close one out. "I'd like to win another one obviously," he said. "Everybody expects you to do it when you step on the tee of every major."

But, according to Nicklaus, none of them has displayed the self-conviction that makes a player dominate his generation.

"None of them have decided in their minds yet that they're capable of dominating," Nicklaus said. "It's something that happens when you walk in the room, everybody says, 'There's the man.' Right now they're saying, 'There's the man, and there's the man, and there's the man.' "