Perhaps there has never been a more unlikely site for a torture chamber than this cloistered little town.

For generations, golfers have sought this sanctuary. The loudest sound in the twisting streets is the jay bird and the only bright night - light is the moon.

But for the last week Pinehurst has lost its resemblance to a golfers' abbey where monkish hackers wander through the pinewoods tending to the health of their souls.

The 414 novitiates, here at the Professional Golfers' Association qualifying school, have taken no vow of silence. Their howl began Tuesday with the first bogey and it will not cease after Sunday's sixth round.

The kids, given golf clubs 15 years ago by fathers who idolized Arnold Palmer, have grown up. They are all here.

For these children of the golf boom, now in their 20s, the PGA's twice - yearly qualifying school is a winnowing final exam to determine the 25 who will receive their Tournament Players Division tour cards and a chance to play the $12 million - pro circuit.

For many, this qualifying school is a first awakening to the enormous odds against them in the profession they have chosen. For others, it is a final, failing grade.

The golf mythology that flourished in Palmer's wake was seductive and the players here admit it. Golf promised a long career, riches, no exhaustion, no injuries, no boos. Simply hit that little white ball around in the sunshine. Itwas seldom mentioned that golf offered little room at the top other than an elite 100.

So this week they gathered - the best golfers in the world outside the pro tour. Their patience was slain, their self-esteem put to the rack and their confidence tattered.

Some deserted the tournament before the first hole, fleeing at the sight of the rockets launched on the practice tee. Others threw away their clubs and their hopes in the middle of the first round and stalked, head down, to the parking lot and drove off.

Forgotten in a blur of fury was their $300 entrance fee and the letters of recommendation from three pros back home.

One perhaps apocryphal story, told around Pinehurst's grill. The 91st Hole, captured the tournament's blend of unremitting pressure and bleak humor.

One player, call him the unknown qualifier, went berserk on the pride of Pinehurst, the sacred No. 2 Course. Faced with elimination when the field was cut to 120 on Thursday, he suddenly lost control as his drive disappeared into deep pines.

The unknown qualifier dropped his pants and began screaming madly at the course, the qualifying school and the game of golf. He was escorted from the grounds in a police car.

For every player here who has up and called it quits, a dozen have begged to stay.

Everywhere tournament director Labron Harris went on Thursday, yound hands plucked at his sleeve. "It's not fair," they pleaded. "I've worked for this for a year, for a life - time really. I'm just getting rolling. You can't cut me now."

Harris had a soft word for each. "Take two weeks off and think," he would say, an elder monk imposing a penance.

But thinking is harder than dreaming.

"It's sad to see so many fine young men fail," said Harris, his face drained by the week of goodbyes and admonitions. "You'd like to see them all get their cards."

But the professional golf world is small. Baseball and football each provide a living wage for perhaps 1,000 athletes; golf finds a comfortable place for little more than 60.

"We tell no one they are not good enough," said Harris, a 12 - year tour veteran. "The course tells them that.

"The pro tour is as open as possible to every capable player. No one can look at the tour and say. 'That's not right.' We are probably the most accessible of all major sports. You are not judged on background, race, technique. It's strictly that number you shoot and no one can question how you got it."

If golf fosters the illusion that every man can become a Lee Trevino, hitting thousands of balls until the mysteries of the game become clear, it also makes inflexible demands.

The qualifying school is that brutal right of passage. "This is where you judge whether your dream is realistic," said Harris.

It was raining on the famous No. 2 Course. David Brownlee was watching.Late afternoon mist rose from the fairways. Lightening cracked in the distance.

Brownlee's thin legs and feet were propped up on the Pinhurst Country Club veranda. A white golf visor, a little worn, trapped his disheveled blond hair, cut low over his washed - out blue eyes.

"I've wanted to be on the pro tour as long as I can remember," he said, calmly."I don't have a name. I don't have any amateur experience. I don't have anything going for me. But I'm gonna get there somehow."

It is of Brownlee, dressed in corduroy pants carrying an old canvas golf bag, and the others that Pinehurst club pro Jay Overton is speaking: "Some of these guys don't have any where to go when they leave here."

Precious few of those here have any chance of ever making a living on the PGA tour. Most know it. As Brownlee says, almost proudly, "the odds are awful."

For every one a tour card is a potential passport to heaven. At the same time, it means absolutely nothing.

A TPD card, plus a dime, will buy a few tees. The card simply allows a player to enter the Monday qualifying for any tour event that is not an invitational. It allows him to be what the golf world calls a "rabbit," a golfer who hops from tournament to tournament, hoping to make ends meet.

The hundreds here who are in Brownlee's netherworld category know that even if they obtain their cards, the probability is that they will lose them again after their first season because they cannot win the $5,000 - a - year necessary to meet the PGA's performance standard for rookies.

This qualifying field is littered with players who previously received their cards and lost them. Others, as did Brownlee, bombed out of the qualifying school more than once.

"This'll probably be my last try," said Brownlee, 27. "I'm gettin' the hint. This is it, or find a Job.

"I do okay in the mini - tours. But when it comes to the players school, my game leaves me. My brain stops functioning after a few days. As the pressure mounts, you don't really known what's wrong. You just don't make the shots any longer."

If Brownlee stops making shots, it is not for lack of trying. In 1976 he spent eight months practicing 15 hours every day to prepare for the previous qualifying school in Brownsville, Texas.

"I'd putt from 7 a.m. to about 11.30," says the 5-foot-8, 150-pound native of LaVerne, Calif., who points out that he is the same size as Ben Hogan. "After lunch from 1 to 5 p.m. I'd hit range balls . . . 400 to 600 shots . . . all with my irons. No drives. I don't practice my driver.

"Then from 6 p.m. to 9 I'd run and weight lift. That was a typical day. I never went on a golf course for almost a year. Just practiced."

The results? Disaster.

"I was awful at Brownsville. I had overworked myself."

In January, Brownlee borrowed $300 from his father and set out for 11 weeks chasing the California mini-tour.

"I won $466 the first week and paid my dad back." After that Brownlee stayed one jump ahead of the McDonald's cashier. When it came time to head for Pinehurst, Brownlee drove cross-country in his old Dodge.

Against all common sense, Brownlee is now playing the best golf of his life. After a career round of 65 on Thursday, only four players stood ahead of him on the huge scoreboard.

A touch of success only made him more reflective, more skeptical about his obsession. "It's so tough out here. I'm realizing it. There are 40 or 50 tour-quality players here who won't get cards. It's just whoever gets hot.

"I guess if I blow up in the last round like I have before, I'll sell my car, get a good meal, head for the mountains and never return," he laughed; not joking.

"I can't see myself doing a normal job. I tried stuff like that - loading sacks in a candy store, golf course maintenance - and I couldn't do it.

"Golf is what I do best. What do I do next best? Sit, I guess, or back pack in the mountains . . . after I retire from the tour," he laughs self-effacingly, "I'd like to live in the mountains, sit back and relax."

Will this be his last qualifying school - one way or the other, his last grand assault or his dream?

"Absolutely," he said. "But then, that's what we all say."

Curtis Strange sits in The 91st Hole; beside him is his young wife Sarah in a T-shirt emblazened "One Putt."

"Missing my card last year by one stroke was probably the worst thing that will ever happen to me in golf," said Strange. "It cost me a year out of my career. I finished the tournament bogey-bogey-bogey. Figure out how that feels," he said, running his hand through the gray hairs in his 22-year-head. "It can make you old in a hurry.

"If I lost the U.S. Open some day by one shot, I suppose it would be more important, but, personally, on the inside you treat yourself just as bad either way."

A year ago Strange, an all-American at Palmer's alma mater, Wake Forest, was ready to roar on to the tour. He had sponsor exemptions and invitatins lined up all over the circuit. A bad rookie season seemed almost impossible.

Then he hit Brownsville. The resort site of the tournament had declared bankruptcy two days before the PGA school started. The greens were abysmal. Bad weather made the course a house of horrors. Strange collapsed after being in serious contention.

"I have to face it," says Strange bitterly, "I can't play on the tour unless I get through this damn school. I have to play well this one week or . . . well; I refuse to talk about the alternative."

Many here this week have cloaked their ambitions, hoping that by keeping their backs turned on their goal, they might advance by rowing backwards. But Strange's plan is direct. "I'm going to win this whole tournament," he said before moving into the lead in Friday's round. "I know I'm not going to let what happened last year happen again,"

Friends of Jimmie Ellis' watch him with trepidation. "If he doesn't get his card this time, they'll have to take him out of here in a straight jacket," his buddy Marty Joyce said.

Ellis is king of the Florida space coast mini-tour circuit. He won $42,000 in the golf bush leagues in the last two years. He hates it.

"I'll never rest easy 'til I get out there with the big boys," says Ellis, 25, who has botched four previous qualifying schools. "Money isn't enough. It's getting so people ask me, 'what happens this time.'"

Again, Ellia has seen bad signs. "My game is a week - to - week deal. Either I drain every putt (knock it down the drain) or I don't. This week I'm missin' five - footers. Every year at this school it's new faces, new names, but they can all play. I can't spot these guys a dozen five - foot putts."

Those afflicted by what is called "the TPD Jinx" seek out each other. Strange became best friends with Phil Hancock, another player who also missed his card by a single stroke last year. Ellis is a clos buddy of Beau Baugh, also trying his fifth qualifying school. "Golf's format is fair, but the odds are terrible," said Baugh, older brother of LPGA star Laura. "Five times . . . Yeh, you gotta start wondering."

After three days here Ellis and Baugh were both a dozen shots off the lead, desperate. "I feel like I'm at the back of a bar with 100 guys ahead of me and I've got to fight my way past all of them to get a beer," said Ellis.

No one wants to fight Jim Thorpe. Fortunately, no one has to. The other 413 players here nod appreciatively when the Falls Church, Va., slugger blasts another 300-yard drive. They simply wait for Thorpe's first mistake.

The clouds of frustration roll across the brow of the George Foreman look - alike and soon the sound of golf balls hitting trees resounds over the course.

"Being a big hitter isn't that important," says Thorpe, a man who has learned the hard way, "the woods are full of them," he grins sheepishly at his pun.

Nearly 400 years ago Montaigne wrote, "To be disciplined from within, where all is permissible, where all is concealed - that is the point."

Thorpe, who earned his card once and lost it, knows that such interdiscipline is the key to "this exasperating pressure game where the most important thing is to relax." Although he knows it, it is the hardest rule to follow.

"I cut the heart of 13 fairways to - day," said Thorpe on Wednesday, trudging off dragging a 75 behind him. "Everyone 300, maybe 320 yards."

But one drive found the pines. "I had a little opening, so I went for it," said Thorpe. The pines won. Thorpe took a double bogey. "If I could learn to react differently between the green and the next tee box after I have a bad hole," he laments, "but I just want to bust the ball."

The result. Another double bogey on the next hole. The rest of the day was spent in repentance.

Thorpe chose golf, in part, because it suited his need for an environment where "nobody gives you anything, but nobody takes anything away from you." Despite golf's long history of racial prejudice, Thorpe finds the tour close to an equal opportunity.

"I know that in golf I'm a black face walking through a white man's world. It can make you jittery," he said. "But I've reached the point I don't feel like an outsider. I know half the people I meet. When your back is turned and the other players speak to you . . . when they're 50 yards away and yell, 'Hey, Zorro. That's not a sword. Slow that swing down.' . . . You know you are accepted.

"It may be harder for a black to raise the $25,000 a year it costs to travel the tour while you're learning how to win some money. But on the whole, out here, you're your own boss. I'm 27 now and I'm not about to quit. You just gotta keep beating the ball, grit your teeth and make birdies."

Because so few of these 400 seekers will ever be heard from as professional golfers, it is probably most valid to look at this week as a qualifying school for character, a brutal test of maturity. Most passed with high marks.

Marty Joyce, thanks to his back-ward-running golf cart, may not have survived the first cut. But on the last hole before his elimination, he scored an ace of sorts.

His playing partner, Chris Haines, whose score was right at the cut-off mark coming to the 54th hole, drove out of bounds left then out of bounds right. "Let's go," said Haines to his caddy, starting to walk off the course. "That's all."

Joyce stopped him. "What will Bob Toski (probably God's most famous teacher) say when you go back for your next lesson? He'll ask what you shot and you'll say, 'I quit.'"

Young Haines finished the hole, although he waited to stop crying before he went to the scorer's tent to sign his card.

"This week is so sad," said Mary Harris, wife of tournament director Harris. "Everyday you see them fighting back the tears. You want to comfort them, tell them life goes on, even though right now they don't think it does.

"Maybe it's good that golf sets up such clear-cut standards. It tells them the truth.

"I don't believe this is a sport that ruins lives. It just ruins dreams."