"Winning isn't everything," Vince Lombardi is said to have warned his gridiron gladiators. "It's the only thing." His spirit must have been hovering at last night's cocktail party kickoff to the annual Lombardi Memorial Golf and Tennis Tournament.

"Democrats are much better golfers," said Rep. Douglas Applegate (D-Ohio). "We're more natural athletes."

"Hah!" retorted House Minority Leader Bob Michel of Illinois when he heard about his colleague's comment. "We beat 'em 62-38" in last week's GOP-Democratic Hill golf tourney. "We finally elected some athletes."

Well, yes, actually, Applegate remembered: "I think Tip O'Neill quit in the rain on the seventh hole after losing a couple of balls, and that was it."

Former Detroit Lions defensive back Lem Barney, one of the many current and retired pro athletes in the crowd of about 300 at J.J. Mellons restaurant, had a grim nonpartisan message of his own about the tennis competition: "I'm here to win the thing. I'm not here to play around. I'm taking this thing back to Detroit with me."

Begun 12 years ago, the Lombardi tournament attracts more than 100 celebrity participants who pay a minimum of $250 each for the honor of settling their differences on the fairways and forecourts of athletic combat. The contributions, which together with corporate gifts totaled $300,000 this year, benefit the Lombardi Cancer Research Center at Georgetown University.

Lombardi, who coached the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins, died of cancer in 1970 at Georgetown University Hospital.

This year's testimonial to the gritty field general included an early morning 10-kilometer foot race through the scenic streets of Georgetown and Northwest Washington. Robert Rodriguez and Catherine Casserly, both Arlington residents, ran off with the trophies in separate men's and women's divisions.

The mammoth golf and tennis tournaments take place today at the Indian Spring Country Club in Silver Spring.

Last night's reception, sponsored by Group W Satellite Communications, featured country-chic decor, food from wall to wall and a multimedia entertainment barrage. While a five-piece bluegrass band wandered the two floors of the atrium at 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, batteries of blaring television sets provided samples of cable sports programming.

The Charlie Daniels Band later continued the assault with a concert for the Lombardi celebrants around the corner at the Warner Theatre. "We don't change our show to suit certain ears," Daniels promised before the performance. They didn't.

In spite of the musical and culinary distractions, however, most conversation focused on today's confrontations and, in some cases, on why some people wouldn't be playing.

"We in the private sector often don't have time for golf," said Bob Ferry, the towering general manager of the Bullets, who will be researching potential draftees today. "You've got to have a lot of free time for golf; that's why politicians are so good at it," added Ferry with a belly laugh.

Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.), a devoted tennis player, wanted to make his allegiances perfectly clear: "I'll be working. I get paid $60,000 a year to do business on behalf of the people of Nebraska, and I think that's what they want me to do."

Columnist Art Buchwald expressed similar sentiments: "I gotta work--I'll be writing about them while they play." Pausing for a second to chew on his trademark cigar, he added, "I think most of the problems in this country are caused by golfers."

The Lombardi fund-raising committee later presented Buchwald with a large crystal goblet and a community service award named after the late Marie Lombardi, the coach's wife.

"I don't deserve this award," he told a cheering audience, "but I want it."