SANDWICH, England (AP) _ One Nick owns it. The other Nick seems to be owed it.

Nick Faldo is certain to be the favorite when golf's oldest tournament, the British Open, begins Thursday at formidable Royal St. George's for the 122nd year.

After all, Faldo owns the title, and is the recent winner of the Irish Open.

His principal opponent in the British Open's field of 156 figures to be Nick Price, who has every reason to believe this event owes him one.

And Price, arguably the hottest player in the world at the moment, would like nothing better than to collect - even if he disavows the debt.

''Oh, no,'' Price said. ''Not in this game. Golf doesn't owe me anything. If anything, it's the other way around.''

But runnerup finishes in 1982 to Tom Watson and in 1988 to Seve Ballesteros remain at the forefront of his memory.

''The first time, I was only 25 and I wasn't ready for it. ''I couldn't handle it,'' recalled Price, who, from the lead, lost four strokes to par over the last six holes at Royal Troon.

''The second time, I played the best I could and I just got beaten by the best player in the world playing at the top of his game,'' said Price, who had a closing round of 69 at Royald Lytham and St. Annes, only to lose to Ballesteros' brilliant 65.

Now, however, Price is a more accomplished and more confident performer.

He is in his golfing maturity and comes into this event with spectacular credentials and an even more spectacular putter.

The putter was given to him by close friend Denis Watson after Price's bid for the U.S. Open was betrayed by poor work on the greens.

He has been on a tear ever since, however.

This amiable man who grew up in the former Rhodesia and resides in Florida is the current PGA champion and, in the last 11 months, won seven times around the world.

This season, he leads the American tour with slightly more than $1 million in earnings and is the only three-time winner.

That includes rare consecutive victories in his last two starts, the Greater Hartford Open and the Western Open, both of which he attributed to growing confidence and proficiency with that new putter.

''He's doing kind of like what Freddie Couples did a year ago,'' Greg Norman after finishing second, five shots back, to Price in his last victory.

And the Australian ace opened up some interesting speculation.

''You have to put him up there as the best player in the world. He deserves to be No. 1,'' Norman said.

Faldo, of course, currently holds that position, at least in a worldwide rating system that is recognized by most major tours.

Faldo did nothing to hurt that standing in his last start.

The 6-foot-3 Englishman was less than impressive in the first half of the year but signaled he was ready for the defense of his British Open crown with a comeback playoff decision over Jose Maria Olazabal in the Irish Open.

Noting that the Irish victory immediately preceeded his emotional triumph at Muirfield last year, Faldo said, ''I hope we're seeing the start of a trend.''

While not exactly what he had in mind, the major trend in the British Open in the last decade has been the unsuccessful struggle of American players.

Americans won 12 of 14 times between 1970 and 1983 but won only once in the nine years since then as the European stars - led by Faldo's three British Open triumphs - moved to the fore.

There's every good chance that trend could continue on the old course in the sandhills overlooking Pegwell Bay that many contend is the most difficult of all those on the British Open rotation.

In addition to the two Nicks who are the most likely to succeed, other major contenders include Masters champion Bernhard Langer of Germany, Norman, Olazabal of Spain, and, possibly, Sandy Lyle of Scotland, who won the last time the Open was held here and only recently has regained some of that form.

Payne Stewart, who has done everything but win this year, is the leading American contender. Stewart, runnerup in the U.S. Open, has been second or third seven times this season and has a history of strong play in Britain.

In addition to newly crowned U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen, other leading Americans include Paul Azinger, Fred Couples, Tom Kite, Corey Pavin and, of course, 50-year-old Ray Floyd. He is still chasing the only major title that has eluded him, the one he needs to become only the fifth man in history to sweep all of the game's major championships.

END ADV For Weekend Editions Jul 10-11