They are having a wee heat wave here hard by the Firth of Tay, with temperatures in the low 80s over the last few days. But classic British Open conditions -- rain and whipping wind -- are on their way just in time for the 128th edition starting Thursday at the venerable links Jack Nicklaus called the toughest he's ever played.

"It's going to be a struggle," said Tom Watson, who won the first of his five British titles at Carnoustie in 1975, the last time the event was played here. "The caddies are the best to go to and say what's the winning score going to be. And they're all predicting well over par. If we get the blow they're predicting on Thursday, you might see some real tears out there."

Already, a number of well-known American players have decided it's not even worth trying, especially if they're not playing particularly well. The list of withdrawals includes some of the game's biggest names and former major champions -- Fred Couples, John Daly, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Steve Jones and Nicklaus, still not fully recovered from hip replacement surgery.

Scott Hoch again is a no-show, as usual showing his contempt for a style of golf with which he insists he can't cope, not to mention the oldest major championship in golf. He's previously wondered out loud what all the fuss is about over St. Andrews, merely the cradle of the game and considered sacred ground by many. Then again, who needs him, especially on a course that is expected to have the game's finest professionals begging for mercy by week's end.

"The tougher the conditions, the better players usually perform," Watson said. "Obviously the golf course is part of those tough conditions. If we get that big blow, it may separate the field right away and separate it to the point where you have 10 or 15 players who will win the tournament out of that first day."

Watson said his goal this week is to par the 16th hole. It's a 250-yard par 3. If the wind is blowing in your face, the biggest, bigger, big anything still won't get you close to the putting surface.

"I think I hit it once [in 1975] in five rounds," Watson said, "and then I had a three-putt. I'll be happy even if I par it in the practice round. I don't think I parred it in one practice round."

The other great challenge on this 7,361-yard, par-71 venue will be the 487-yard 18th. They'll be playing that as a par 4 this week -- one of seven on the course that measures at least 460 yards.

And with the Barry Burn, a small stream, cutting across the fairway in two different places, even the game's greatest players may have difficulty getting on in two. There is usually a prevailing tailwind off the tee helping with the distance, but that can shift at any given moment, making the challenge even more profound.

The course clearly is in magnificent condition. "Unbelievable," said Scotland's Colin Montgomerie. "I've never seen a links course in this condition. The fairways are absolutely fabulous. The teeing areas are firm and flat, and the greens putt very true. I think you'll never find a finer links course than this."

Some still may have to be convinced.

"I played here for the first time [Saturday] and I thought it was almost impossible," said Vijay Singh, the defending PGA champion. "Then I went out Sunday and learned a little more. But right now, if you hit it in the rough, you'll be lucky to find the ball. Right now, predicting among the pros, if the wind blows, we'll still be playing here next week."

Today, conditions were almost idyllic, with a mild breeze coming in off the water and bright sunshine most of the afternoon. Montgomerie, who won the Scottish Open Saturday at an inland, American-style course, said there would be no comparison to what he accomplished last week at Loch Lomond and what he'd like to do this week -- become the first Scot since Tommy Armour in 1931 to win the Open in Scotland.

"This is the most difficult by far, by a long, long way" of any of the links courses in the current British Open rotation, he said. "And this is a glorious summer's day here with a very, very light breeze. We all hope and pray it doesn't become a wind. If it becomes a wind, you'll see scores higher than we've ever, ever seen before in any British Open.

"Even on a perfect day like today, everyone would take level par and run. If it does blow at all, that 300 mark [16 over par over 72 holes] might well be. It's so difficult, so difficult. I don't think anybody comes in here and says, `I hope it blows.' If it does, it will be no fun."

A total of 300 or more hasn't won the British Open since 1925, when James Barnes prevailed at Prestwick with 300. Armour had 296 in winning the first Open at Carnoustie in 1931. The highest score by a champion in the last three decades was Gary Player's 289 at Carnoustie in 1968.

Still, Montgomerie also likes his chances, even if he's traditionally had abysmal results in a tournament he would love to win more than any other.

"It could possibly be that Carnoustie is set up better for me than any Open course has been before," he said. "But it can trip up the best. I have the course record with a 64 in the opening round of the Scottish Open in 1995. My last round, my final round in '96, was 84. There are very few courses in the world where my scores have varied by 20 strokes."

CAPTION: Tiger Woods practices for the 128th British Open at Carnoustie in Scotland, on a rare day of beautiful weather.