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Competitive fire still burns for Watson

By Tom Pilcher

SUNNINGDALE, England (Reuters) - Ask 60-year-old American Tom Watson if his competitive spirit still burns strong and expect a glare from the eight-times major winner.

Watson impressed the sporting world at last year's British Open when he came within a whisker of becoming the oldest major winner by more than 10 years, and he is back in Britain to battle out next week's Open at St Andrews.

Despite displaying all the skills of a patient and friendly teaching golf professional to a large gallery at Sunningdale Golf Club outside London, the American will not travel to Scotland just to make up the numbers.

"I'm in reasonably good form this year and I'm looking forward to putting it to the test again this year at St Andrews," Watson told Reuters on Wednesday on the edge of the practice putting green where several spectators stood mesmerized after an hour-long, short-game masterclass.

Watson kept a smile on his face until he was asked if he happily dished out advice to the younger generation when playing a competitive round.

"I don't speak unless I'm asked. I don't do it in the heat of battle. Off the course I'm happy to talk to them," he said, a more steely look appearing in his eyes. The most striking thing about Watson, however, is that he racked up all his eight majors before he even understood the golf swing.

In 1994, Watson began modeling his swing on the action of Corey Pavin, a player he admired and now the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, and started to make great contact with the ball.

"I practiced as hard as anybody, if not harder, to find that formula, but not until 1994 did I really feel I truly understood the golf swing," he said while unveiling his DVD 'Lessons for Life' to a packed room.

YOUNG GOLFERS

Watson, whose last major win was the British Open in 1983, had his own teacher from a young age.

His father, nicknamed 'Hook' for his uncanny ability to make a right-to-left shape with the golf ball, introduced him to the game at the age of six.

Of the young golfers currently on the tour, Watson is a big fan of 21-year-old Briton Rory McIlroy and Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, 18.

"Ishikawa? He's got it. Rory? He's the real deal. It's their turn to see if they can take the reins and lead that horse on to victory," he said as golfers coming off the Sunningdale course closed in for autographs.

Both youngsters will be at St Andrews, a layout Watson knows well.

"It's a wonderful golf course. It requires so much imagination. You have to play certain shots that you don't usually play; that's what makes St Andrews so frustrating."

Freefalling world number one Tiger Woods knows what it takes to win at the Old Course, having lifted the Claret Jug there in 2000 and 2005, and Watson was sure his compatriot would come strong again after losing form following his admission of a string of extra-marital affairs earlier this year.

"I've always said I think he'll break Jack's record," he said in reference to another American, Jack Nicklaus, who won a record 18 majors between 1962 and 1986. Woods has 14 since 1997.

"Winning just one is difficult for anybody but Tiger has proven in the past he's an exceptional player and I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't do it in my lifetime."

Watson has won five British Opens but has never triumphed at St Andrews. Asked at a news conference which player he would place his money on, he had only one answer.

"Right here. I've got long odds," he joked.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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