So there he was, hacking around on the back nine, not hitting the ball well, not quite sure why he was having trouble. Trudging toward the 11th green Tom Watson suddenly looked around and noticed something: there was no one else on the Stanford golf course. No one. Now roused from absorption with his game, Watson discovered that night had fallen. "All I could see were lots of stars."

He was 21, a Stanford senior who, like many of his classmates, had spent more of his time in college thinking about the Vietnam War than his future. In a few months, at graduation, the future was going to become the present, and at that moment Watson hadn't the vaguest notion what he was going to do with himself and his degree in psychology.

But as he stood there on the green, Watson asked the surrounding night: "Why am I out here? It's dark, the stars are out, there's no one here but me. Why?" The answer came quickly: "This is where I want to be. Why? Because this is what I do best. I don't do it nearly well enough to be successful on the tour but it is what I do best."

Right there, Watson made a decision. "I decided I was going to turn pro."

From that night on, for almost 12 years now, Tom Watson has worked, probably harder than anyone in the world, at his golf game. The results have been astonishing. Today, at 32, he is firmly established as the best player in the world.

Consider: In the last five years, Watson has won 27 tournaments. Jack Nicklaus has won 10. No one else has won more than eight. From 1977 through 1981 Watson won $2,044,186. John Feinstein covers Maryland politics for The Washington Post. The second biggest money winner, Lee Trevino, won $1,073,178. Twice he has won the Masters, three times the British Open.

But he has yet to fulfill his boyhood dream and win the U.S. Open. Because he would like to be remembered as the greatest player ever, the absence of an Open title is something Watson is always asked about, something friends say he worries about almost year-round.

This week, Watson will try to remove that asterisk from his record. The Open, beginning Thursday, will be played at one of his favorite courses, Pebble Beach, outside Carmel, Calif.

How big is The Open to Watson?

"Big," said his mentor Byron Nelson, one of the game's all- time greats. "I mean real big. It's at the point where I worry if he doesn't win it soon it'll get to be a problem. When he was down here early in May I was watching him on the practice tee. He would hit a shot and say, 'That's a perfect drive for No. 12 at Pebble,' or hit another shot and talk about Pebble. It's there in his mind all the time."

Watson shrugs off those who wonder if the Open is becoming an obsession. But he does not argue its significance as part of a giant puzzle only a few pieces from completion.

"If I'm going to be regarded as one of the great players, I have to win it and I have to win the PGA," he said. "Obviously, it's my number one priority. I'll be disappointed if I don't win it, but if I don't I don't. It's not that big a deal."

Or is it?

"You watch Tom during Open week," said John Cook, a young pro with Watson's sense of the game's history. "You can see this glow in his eyes. He can't wait to tee it up and get started."

As a boy Watson and his father played a game called, "Name the Open Champion." Today, Watson can name almost all of them. None is named Watson. Thomas Sturges Watson, second son of Raymond E. and Sarah Elizabeth Watson, was born Sept. 4, 1949 in Kansas City, Mo. Raymond Watson was (and is) a successful insurance investment counselor. The Watsons were a part of Kansas City's upper crust.

Tom was introduced to the game at age six by his father, a scratch player. The Watsons played at the Kansas City Country Club, The Country Club, as it is called by the gentry that have membership. It is very exclusive, very expensive and very white.

Tommy, as he is still called by his home-town friends today, loved to compete with his father and his brother Ridge, three years his senior. When people ask Watson what gives him the competitive fire that burns inside him, he thinks back to those days as a little boy when he couldn't quite keep up with his brother.

"Ridge and I competed in everything," Watson said. "Until I was 13, he pretty much kicked my butt all the time. After that, I started kicking his butt."

Once Ridge and his father had been passed, Watson didn't stop. He liked the way winning felt and has never lost his drive for it. If anything, he is more addicted to it now because he honestly believes there is no reason why he should ever lose.

During high school (at an all-boys prep school), Watson dated Linda Rubin, whom he met during a junior high school production of The Pirates of Penzance. Linda, dark and stunning with huge brown eyes, was as outgoing as Tommy was quiet.

Watson played football (quarterback) and basketball in high school but never got the hang of baseball. "I could only hit balls thrown down at my feet." He played golf virtually every day from March until September, working diligently on his short game, one of the reasons he is the best putter in the world today.

He was earmarked early for Stanford, his father's and brother's alma mater. As a freshman, Watson finally saw Life Outside The Country Club.

"I came from a very closed and structured environment," he said. "I believed in the Vietnam war, I thought it was something to be proud of if you were an American. College opened my eyes to a lot of things I hadn't been aware of."

The beginning of Watson's education came when he wrote a freshman English paper lambasting the antiwar protesters on campus. The professor suggested some reading. That was the start of Watson's mental evolution.

He drifted though majors, from communications to economics to psychology. One of the things which spurred him towards psychology was a class experiment. "The professor gave us sealed envelopes which he said had our records in them with an analysis done on each of us by the school. He wanted us to tell him if we agreed or disagreed with the analysis. Eighty-five percent of us agreed with our analysis. What we didn't know was that the analysis on each one of us was identical."

That incident helped inspire Watson to take more psych courses, leading to a major. He was a fair student (2.5 grade point average on a 4.0) scale, and a fair golfer his first three years, never working that hard on his game or his grades. Until his moment of revelation on the golf course, he had no idea what he wanted from life.

The first person he told of his decision was his father. The two were in the car, coming back from a Christmas vacation hunting trip, when Watson delivered the news.

He remembers his father's exact words because they were so important to him. "That's the right thing to do," Raymond Watson said. "If you don't try it, you'll regret it the rest of your life."

Linda Rubin's reaction was not quite so positive. She had spent two years going to college in the East and then transferred to Mills College, near Stanford--and Tom. She had assumed he would get his degree, go into business, wear a suit and tie and be home by 6 p.m. most nights.

But Tom's mind was made up. He made it through the PGA qualifying school shortly after graduation and, with his father and several business associates backing him financialy, won $2,085 that first half- year on the tour. Hardly a bonanza. Still he was just learning.

Watson learned fast because he became a range workaholic. To this day, no one practices harder or sees darkness fall on the range more than Watson. Why? "My father taught me how to practice from the very bas it is called by the gentry that have membership. It is veeginning. He didn't just teach me how to hit the ball straight, he taught me how to hook it, how to slice it, how to hit it high, how to hit it low. I've always played shots on the range. It makes practicing fun."

The other factor was the intensity that pushed Watson to always seek perfection, the perfect, repetitive swing. Working with Nelson, who in the minds of many had the most rhythmic swing ever, has only increased that desire.

"Tom will never be satisfied with his swing," Nelson said. "Even if we got to the point when we were working where he was hitting ever shot just right, we would find something we want to change."

Watson's work began to show results in 1973 when he jumped to 35th on the money list. That year, he and Linda were married. The wedding stirred whispers at The Country Club. Tommy Watson marrying a Jewish girl?"

"That's what they were, whispers," said brother-in-law- agent-lawyer Charles Rubin. "Tom's attitude, everyone's attitude has basically been that the people who would care about something like that aren't worth caring about. No one has ever brought it up to Tom out there. They just wouldn't do that to him."

Even so, one of Watson's business associates in Kansas City jokes that when Watson's 21/2-year-old daughter Meg is old enough to use the club pool she may only be allowed in up to her waist because she is half- Jewish. When Chuck Rubin is asked how the club would react if he were to apply for membership his answer is:

"I don't know."

With Linda on tour with him, Watson's game began to take off in 1974. Unfortunately, his first real brush with the limelight came at that year's U.S. Open when he led the tournament for three rounds, then collapsed the last day, shooting 79.

"That was one of the low moments," Linda Watson remembered. "Standing in the rain waiting for him to come out of the locker room after that round was very, very tough."

But it was not a totally lost day. Because as he sat in front of his locker trying to figure out where he had gone wrong, Watson was approached by Nelson. The great swing master had watched Watson closely and liked his style--the way he attacked the course, his aggressiveness, the fact that he played fast and didn't agonize over each shot.

Nelson walked up to Watson that rainy afternoon, handed him a Coke, sat down next to him and began telling him why he thought he was going to be a great player and what he had to do to get there.

A friendship was born.

Two weeks later, Watson finally won for the first time, at the Western Open. He won the British Open a year later in a playoff and, at 25, was recognized as one of golf's rising stars.

But there was still this disturbing tendency to shoot the lights out for two or three rounds and then fade, often horribly, on Sunday. The word on Watson then was that he was a big talent but a bigger choker. In 1976, he was 12th on the money list, winning $138,202. But he didn't win a tournament.

"The choke label was a bit unfair," Watson said. "There may have been a couple of times where I did let the pressure get to me. But I think what was really going on was that I was still learning. I had to learn how to win. It's one thing to play well enough to get into contention, it's another to know how to finish once you get there. A lot of guys never get over that hump."

Watson finally cleared that hurdle in 1977--at Pebble Beach, in the final round of the Big Crosby Pro-Am. Watson felt good about his game all week, but had to withstand a late move by Tony Jacklin. He did.

To Watson, that tournament was the key. To the golfing public though, two memorable confrontations with Nicklaus, the first at the Masters, the second at the British Open, both also in 1977, killed the choker label forever. Watson won the 1977 Masters by breaking a tie with Nicklaus on the last day with a 20-foot birdie putt at No. 17 just when everyone was waiting for The Collapse. Then in July, at the British Open, he and Nickluasas it is called by the gentry that have membership. It is ve went mano-a-mano the final two days with the rest of the field 10 shots in their wake. Nicklaus shot 65-66. Watson responded with 65-65, coming from three shots down during the final round to win.

The two victories catapulted Watson into superstardom. After his 1975 British Open victory he had signed briefly with the management group that controls the Palmer empire and once had Nicklaus under contract, but after six months Watson left and turned his burgeoning business career over to Rubin, who had already been handling many of his local dealings.

"I don't think Tom wants to be as aggressive a businessman as Jack or Arnie," Rubin said. "We've learned to say no. Tom has a certain image of himself and there are some things we just won't endorse."

Watson and Rubin are far more than business partners or even brothers-in-law. As Rubin puts it, "We wrestled on the carpet together as kids." Outside of Linda, Rubin may be the closest thing Watson has to a best friend. The two even enjoy acting like kids every now and then, continuing a childhood habit of setting off dozens of firecrackers every Fourth of July.

They work in adjoining offices and when an offer or request comes in there is a discussion. Usually it sounds something like: "What do you think?" "I don't know--not much." "Okay then, let's skip it." End of discussion.

As the best player in the world, Watson could have dozens of endorsements. He chooses to have only eight major ones. He won't endorse certain products, deodorants, for instance, and he doesn't want to spend too much potential practice time making commercials.

"The most important thing for me to work on is my golf," he said. "That's what I do well. If you get distracted by too many outside interests, it'll hurt your golf. I've seen it happen."

With fame has come the ever-increasing glare of the spotlight. Today, Rubin screens every interview request the same way he screens endorsment offers. Watson and his family (Linda is expecting a second child in December) live comfortably in Mission Hills, Kans., a posh Kansas City suburb. The house is off-limits to the media and the world.

Watson's self-imposed wall may explain why he is liked but not loved, why golf fans like to watch him play but don't root for him the way they rooted for Palmer or Trevino. Watson is shy, an introvert who finds himself on center stage in the era of what Rubin calls, "glitter golf."

If he were the second, third or 12th best player in the world, no one would notice. But he is No. 1, and people want somehow to touch him, to understand him, to feel as if they are part of him.

Palmer has always given that impression: man of the people, the blacksmith, the charger, hitching his pants and striding down the fairways like a man possessed. For years, Jack Nicklaus was scorned, first because he was fat, then because he didn't have Palmer's warmth. Now, settled comfortably into golfing senior citizenship at age 42, he has become the hero, blond and smiling, a man whose greatness has finally been recognized.

Watson is no more capable of hitching his pants or throwing a rubber snake or jumping in a lake than he is capable of hitting his wedge standing on his head. He is, however, one of the most electrifying players to ever pick up a club. In technical terms, Watson may be inconsistent. With his big, often too-fast swing, he can be wild, especially off the tee. Walking a round with Watson can be an adventure, a rollicking ride to places seen more frequently by hackers than pros.

But that all opens the way to Watson's genius as a player. No matter what kind of trouble he finds, he always seems to find a way out. Other players often refer to a "Watson par." That is a par saved after a side trip to the woods, the sand or the water when a bogey or worse seems inevitable and a par is soas it is called by the gentry that have membership. It is vemehow produced.

"No one on the tour plays with more guts than Tom Watson," said Lanny Wadkins, a close friend. "There isn't a shot he isn't afraid to try and, more often than not, he's good enough to pull it off."

Nelson, who hold golf's most untouchable record, 11 straight tournament victories, is more direct: "He may be the best scrambler in the history of the game."

But in a television-dominated age, the spectacular shots hit out of range of the camera are quickly forgotten. Jerry Pate jumping into a lake to celebrate a victory makes the front page of newspapers and gets him invited to the White House. A Watson- Johnny Miller duel on the last day of the Los Angeles Open, even when Watson makes a Palmer-like charge to win in a playoff, is remembered only by aficionados.

"If you are watching golf on television, it can be very boring," Watson said. "It's hard to relate what a guy has done to get into contention on those last four or five holes when you haven't seen it. But that's not the way golf is. You can't televise the whole round. Drama has to build in a golf tournament. It's hard to do that in two hours."

The one tournament in which the TV audience sees the whole course in the last two days is the Open. Watson knows that if he is to take the place he covets at or near the top of the list of the game's all- time players, he must win the Open and the PGA, the fourth major. Many people measure greatness by the majors. Nicklaus has won 19; Watson five. The goal is reachable but a long way off.

At least that goal is tangible. Numbers are easy to count. Popularity, passion and fervor cannot be measured. That means chasing Palmer, the man who made golf a viable TV sport, who made sex appeal something that is measured almost as often as stroke average.

"Sometimes I wonder what people expect me to do," Watson said. "Maybe they think I should go on some kind of speaking tour. But I would never do that because that would just be promoting Tom Watson.

"I know I'll never be the hero that Arnie was. My personality isn't as outgoing as his to begin with. But that's just part of it. Americans naturally pull for the underdog. Arnie made a couple of late charges early in his career, in the Open, the Masters, when a lot of people were watching. So, he got the reputation as the charger, the come-from-behind guy.

"Even if I did everything just like Arnie I wouldn't be thought of the way he is because with all the money involved we have no heroes in this country anymore. People just can't identify with guys making dollars like that.

"Fernando Valenzuela was the first hero we'd had in sports in a long time. But he blew it holding out, demanding all that money. Now, he's just another pitcher. People look at him as just another spoiled athlete."

Watson was sitting in a corner of the grill room at the Kansas City Country Club, munching a club sandwich, sipping and ice tea and addressing a conception that disturbs him. The sun, slanting through the windows of the regal white- shingled building, picked up the flashes in his light blue eyes as Watson talked about heroes.

Like Palmer, Watson is aggressive. Like Palmer, Watson is attractive, a man with a quick dazzling smile, a shock of red hair and freckles, a slight gap between his front teeth and outsized arms that are the most noticeable feature on an athletic 5-foot-9, 160-pound body. But there is a significant difference between Palmer and Watson. Palmer always gave the impression that much of his inspiration came from the gallery. Barbara Nicklaus, wife of Jack, once said that Palmer would rather have dinner with 700 strangers than two friends. Watson is just the opposite. He admits himself that he has built a wall between himself and the public, which always seems to want to peer in on its heroes' private lives. He is always polite, always candid and opinionated about issues. But not about himself.

Part of the reason for this craving of privacy is one of Watsooas it is called by the gentry that have membership. It is ven's fears: that he won't be the father and husband he should be because the rest of the world wants a piece of him.

"I worry about not being a good father or husband sometimes," he said. "I think I have a tendency to be selfish about my golf and as a result there are times when Linda get stuck with too much."

Another fear: "I worry about the day when I can't play competitive golf anymore. I 'm not sure I fear it but I do think about it. I'm not really sure what I'll do when the time comes. I don't know how you go about preparing for something like that. I think I'll be able to accept it, not readily, but grudgingly."

Two other fears: Never winning the Open. Never gaining the acceptance among the golfing public of Palmer, Nicklaus or even Pate.

Watson'a Achilles heel is the Open. In last year's Open, at Merion, outside Philadelphia, a course where Watson had to use his often-wild driver only a few times each round, he duck- hooked a ball out-of-bounds on the 15th hole during the third round, knocking himself out of contention. He came off the course that day eyes ablaze, struggling to keep intact his record of never having let his temper show in public.

Before the Open last year, Watson won three times, including his second Masters. After the Open, his highest finish was a tie for 20th. His zest for the game seemed gone. He came back from his annual three-month layoff to win two tournaments, both in dramatic playoffs and was on a streak of six straight top five finishes when he began getting ready for this year's Open by traveling to Dallas in mid-May for some work with Nelson.

The Open is different from the Masters because it is on a different course each year. It is harder for a player to build towards winning it because the demands each year are new ones. Even if it is on a course a player is familiar with, one never knows what awaits because the USGA, which sponsors the tournament, always builds up the rough or plants new trees in preparation for the tournament.

So, Watson must hope that he will arrive at Pebble Beach with the right feel for his swing, something that has often eluded him lately.

"For the last 18 months, my swing just hasn't been what I want it to be," he said. "I've struggled, had to play defensively. Right now, my talent lies in getting the ball in the hole. But my swing is coming along, it's improving. I will get there.

"And when I do, watch out."

Somehow, it seems, the Open has replaced brother Ridge. But nothing has replaced the feeling he has for THE GAME, unfettered by the distractions forced on him by the outside world.

Watson says he enjoys golf most when he plays with his father and his old teacher, Stan Thirsk. They play on an empty course--no television, no fans, no reporters. Watson is almost back on the 11th green at Stanford doing what he enjoys most, what he does best.

And no one is watching.