Watson primed for defense of golf's Masters title; Experience may work in favor of two-time winner, who is well rested and confident

Rarely has a defending Masters champion been in such logical position to repeat. Tom Watson won his last tournament, the Sea Pines Heritage Classic and arrived here on a virtual tidal wave of momentum.

''I feel very sharp and very eager'' says the year's only double winner. ''I'm playing well, I'm rested after a week off, and I'm confident about my swing and my putting stroke. You can't ask for more when you're trying to defend a major championsip.''

The tousel-haired, 32-year-old Kansas Citian caught Jack Nicklaus on the final 36 holes last year to claim his second green jacket. He played poorly the second half of the season, by his standards, but appears to have recaptured the form that made him the best golfer in the world over the past five years.

Watson's track record in the Masters during that span is unapproachable. He won it in 1977, tied for second in '78 and '79, tied for 12th in '80 and won it again last spring. On a course that traditionally rewards experience, that experience has to make him the favorite.

''The atmosphere here tends to bring out the best in you,'' he says thoughtfully. ''There's a marvelous feeling of Bobby Jones who started the club and was such a great player and a great gentleman. His memory has been honored very tastefully.

''I love golf memorabilia and reliving the old championships - it's part of the game and part of me. You have it at Colonial in Fort Worth with Ben Hogan, at Preston Trail in Dallas with Byron Nelson, and here with Bobby Jones. I can't go to these places and not feel something special.

''The past champions who come back to play just to be part of the Masters scene mean a lot. You go in for lunch and Gene Sarazen's telling a group of friends and reporters about his famous double eagle. You don't find that anywhere else.

''I never met Bob Jones, unfortunately, but indirectly he was a strong influence on me. He was an influence on my father, who is a good amateur golfer, and through my father that filtered down to me.

''I remember early in life reading Jones' book 'Down the Fairway,' which he wrote with O.B. Keeler. That was a great book, and I like to reread it before I come here.''

As he ascends toward the sort of greatness exemplified by the Jones legacy, Watson appreciates more and more how much major championships will mean to his final record, and his approach to them shifts subtly.

''I've had a tendency to practice too much during the majors and beat the feel out of my hands,'' he says. ''At the Masters in 1976 I practiced so much I couldn't feel the putter. I'm taking a little more relaxed attitude today.''

Setting himself aside, Watson looks for Bruce Lietzke and Peter Jacobsen to play well in this 46th Masters.

''They're good all-round players who are due to surprise people in a big one, '' he says.

Never to be overlooked, by Watson or anyone else, is five-time champion Nicklaus . . . the only man ever to win it twice in succession, in 1965 and 1966 .

He has missed the cut in his last two starts, but the thing to remember is that Nicklaus is the all-time best at gearing up for important occasions, and feels his putting is better this year than in some time.

Tom Kite is leading the tour in scoring average, at 69.81, and plays Augusta National well even though his lack of strength should work against him. He is Golf Digest's No.1 pick this week.

Other top contenders include leading money winner Jerry Pate, who will not be able to jump into a pond here if he wins unless he does it in a playoff, because there is no pond near the 18th green; a resurgent Johnny Miller, who tied with Nicklaus for second a year ago, and the hefty Craig Stadler, who has contended nearly every week in 1982.

Among the first-time contestants are an engaging Nathaniel Crosby, the US amateur champion who will tee off with Watson on Thursday, and Bernhard Langer of West Germany, a prodigious driver of the ball who led the European Order of Merit.

The lush, rolling course is ready for this formidable and diverse array of challengers. The greens look to be excitingly fast and more consistent than last year, when a conversion to bentgrass proved spotty.

With its usual dedication to quality, the club dug up four greens over the summer and rebuilt them.

''You know,'' says defending champion Watson, ''that if they have a problem here it isn't going to last very long.''

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