The wind is already howling, and so are many of the players on the eve of the 128th British Open. Most conversations no longer begin with, "If it blows 30 miles an hour . . ." "If" is no longer part of the equation; soaring scores caused by predicted gusts off the North Sea seem almost inevitable when play begins early Thursday morning.

Still, that is exactly how this long, zig-zagging links layout was meant to be played. Three of the five previous Opens at Carnoustie were won with over-par totals, and Tom Watson's 279 was achieved in virtually dead-calm conditions in 1975, the last time the Open was played in this tiny town on the Firth of Tay.

"I've never played a course with the combination of as high a rough and the [narrow] width of the fairways here," said David Duval, who is still searching for his first major championship. "It will be a strong test of long iron play and probably putting because of the difficulty of doing it in the wind. I don't see how it tests a player's ability with the driver because we won't be using it that much."

Said Greg Norman: "I think the word `brute' has been used a lot. I think trying to hit a driver into my hotel room would be another analogy I'd make. That's about the width we've got to hit into."

The course plays to a par of 71 and a length of 7,361 yards, with four of the game's longest and most demanding finishing holes measuring a total of 1,688 yards. One of those is the 250-yard 16th, where Jack Nicklaus had to use a driver in 1968 into the wind and Watson never made par in five rounds the year he won.

The last is the longest, a 487-yard par 4 that will be impossible to reach in two against the wind. Making it even more complicated is the Barry Burn, a nasty little stream that snakes across the fairway in three places. The most diabolical pin placement is right at the front of a raised green, which is guarded by two imposing bunkers.

There are other intriguing tests. The 578-yard No. 6 is called "Long" on the scorecard and was made famous by Ben Hogan, who won here in 1953. The taciturn Texan chose the direct route down the dangerous left side rather than play his drive right and then back to the left. It was the only way he could get on in two at a hole that played 565 yards then.

His route has since been called "Hogan's Alley," and included a tee shot into the wind down the left side. He started his ball on a flight over an out-of-bounds fence, but counted on the wind to push it back toward the fairway, a far more direct path to the green. There are three daunting fairway bunkers that come into play off the tee, meaning that long hitters must carry at least 300 yards to clear them, no easy task into the wind.

Sergio Garcia, the 19-year-old Spanish sensation, said he played the hole this morning into the wind with what he described as "a perfect drive, and a perfect 2-iron to a 12-yard [wide] fairway" and still had 125 yards to the green. He got there with a 7-iron and two-putted for "a very, very difficult par."

The 515-yard 15th is known as "Spectacles" because of two side-by-side bunkers 70 yards short of the putting surface that likely won't come into play unless the wind is bending flag sticks. Still, there's a positively scary view off the tee, with only a whiff of the fairway visible beyond vast expanses of gorse, heather and rough. Twin bunkers come into play down the left side and trees and more sand are down the right.

"I've never seen a course quite like this before," said Mark Calcavecchia, the 1989 British Open champion at Royal Troon. "You just can't miss the fairways here, especially after the fifth hole. At number 6, there's no place to lay up, really. At number 7, there's no place to drive it, and it doesn't get any better. Some holes, if you don't hit the perfect tee shot, you're going to make bogey or worse.

"If it gets really windy and ugly out there, then it will be vicious to play. The average score might be 80. In fact, it probably will be, and that's pretty silly. We had a $2,000 no-bogey bonus today [in a practice round with playing partners Billy Mayfair, Phil Mickelson and Larry Donald] and I made it through 10 holes without a bogey. Then I made about six after that."

Still, some players insist they have no complaints.

"It's going to be four days of hard work," Duval said. "We all know it's going to be hard and that it's going to beat up everyone. The most important thing is to keep it in play, and in play means inside the high grass. Then you pull out your 3-iron and try to hit it again. I don't sweat it. It's just how it's going to be.

"I've always found that whether a player likes or dislikes a course, they haven't stopped giving out the trophy on Sunday. Whether you think it's fair or unfair, too hard or too easy, someone is going to take home the Claret Jug. . . . I just hope there are a few spotters out there. It's going to be tough."

Tiger Woods is the 6-to-1 favorite in the local bookmaking shops to become the fifth straight American to win this coveted title, a streak that would be the longest in 69 years. After finishing third a year ago at Royal Birkdale, he said this week he "loves" playing in the kind of difficult conditions a course many are calling "Car-nasty" will offer over the next frazzling four days.

"Who does it suit? Anyone who's playing well," he said. "Anyone who's really controlling their trajectory well, and on this course, you're going to have to deal with some adversity, some wind, some rain, some calm. You have to adapt your game to those conditions and be committed to your shots. And whoever is feeling confident will do very well."

British Open

When: Today-Sunday.

Course: Carnoustie Golf Club (7,361 yards, par 71), Carnoustie, Scotland.

Purse: $2,884,890 (approximate).

Winner's share: $506,805 (approximate).

TV: ESPN (today-Friday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. and 7:30-10:30 p.m.) and ABC (Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.).

Defending champion: Mark O'Meara (at Royal Birkdale).