"The courses are different here," American Hale Irwon said after his first round today in the 106th British Open golf championship. "The lies, the stances, the general conditions are not like we know them at home. I'm not saying that's bad, but there's a difference.

"It's like the language: they speak English, we speak English, but one is distinct from the other. It's the same way with their golf couses. Over here, they have a British accent."

There is a natural, if provincial, tendency for American sports fans to think of professional golf as a succession of Phoenixes, Chicagos and Greensboros. Variety means that the Heritage at Hilton Head Island isn't like the "desert classics" of California and Arizona, and internationalism takes the form of a few Australians or the odd South African among the waves of young U.S. players with swings as stylized as their double-knits.

The U.S. public's once-a-year exposure to the British Open via an edited, 90-minute ABC-TV telecast of the final round, therefore, comes as something of a revelation. The best U.S. players are here, but the golf is different from what they produce on any given Sunday on the American tour, and they mingle with pros from the Orient, the continent and such exotic places as Tobago.

There are 27 Americans and golfers from 26 other nations in the field of 156 for this week's Open at the Turnberry Hotel. All have to adjust their style to the kind of golf demanded by the seaside links on which the oldest of open championships is always played.

"We don't have the true links courses in the U.S. except maybe on Long Island," said Irwin, who shot an even-par 70 today.

"There are no trees to speak of, and they have a much heartier beach-type of grass - native to the region, not a hybrid cultivated and brought in for the course. They go more for pot bunkers here, smaller and deeper than most of ours. And you have to play the wind in British golf - there's nothing to stop it.The air's heavier and it's a steadier breeze.

"You can't balloon the ball. You have to hit it hard and low. It's going to hit and bounce, so you have to be aware not only of the landing area but what's beyond, and play accordingly," the 32-year-old Missourian added.

"The greens are generally firm, so you have to play run-up golf. It's not the nature of these greens to hold the ball. It doesn't bite, so you can't backspin it in, such it up to the hole."

There is gorse and heather, thistle and wild roses, broom and tangled underbrush on Turnberry's 6,879-yard Ailsa course, but the rough is not nearly as severe as on some other British Open links, and lack of rainfall recently has kept it tamer than normal.

Still, the fairways are extremely narrow, and there is trouble to be found even if one doesn't put any shots onto the rocks or beach that line the blue-green Firth of Clyde, which borders eight holes.

"British Open courses test the man more than his ability, much more so than most U.S. courses," said Tom Watson, the reigning Masters champion whose first major title was the British Open at Carnoustie in 1975.

"The luck of the bounce comes into play much more. A shot in the middle of the fairway can hit a little knob and careen into the rough. You face the prospect of a bad bounce on almost every shot and have to be ready for it. In your gut, you have to feel. 'If it happens, it happens. I'm not going to let it bother me.'"

"It can drive you insane, but I love playing over here," said Tom Weiskopf, who won the Open in 1973 at Troon, 25 miles due north of here on the same Ayrshire coast that boasts 33 links.

"This is where golf started, and you can sense the history. I'm a traditionalist at heart. You have to play a different game - it's not target golf, where you hit the ball and expect it to stop where you want because the fairways are lush. But it's challenging golf.

"You have to improvise and think more here. Most of all, you have to be patient. It takes more patience to win this than any other championship."

The best American golfers play in what is still officially called "the Open Championship" because it is a matter of personal and professional pride.Just as the greatest tennis players aspire to prove themselves on all court surfaces, so the best golfers in the world want the reputation of being able to win on all types of courses. Only when they have won the British Open as well as one of the American legs of the modern grand slam does the entire golf world recognize them as truly great all-around shotmakers.

"It's simple," said Arnold Palmer. "The Americans, like everybody else, come here because they'd like to be able to call themselves the British Open champion."

It hasn't always been that way. As recently as 27 years ago, there was only an American challenger, amateur Frank Stanahan. That was in a period when the prestige of the British Open was at a low ebb.

The prize money - which has risen rapidly in recent years to its current $172,000 - was piddling. Historically, the purse had never been emphasized. It wasn't until four years after the first championship in 1860 at Prestwick, 30 miles north of Turnberry on the Scottish west coast that any money was at stake.

Even then, the first prize was less than $20. The original trophy was a red Morocco belt, but it was retired in 1870 by Tom Morris Jr. after his third consecutive victory. (His father, "Old Tom Morris," was runner-up in the inauguaral Open - a novel affair of 36 holes played after lunch by eighty pros - and a four-time winner.)

As late as the 1920s, the first prize was so puny that Walter Hagen, after one of his four triumphs, gave his entire purse to his caddy.

It was Palmer's first appearance, in the centenary open at St. Andrews in 1960, that marked the start of the most recent and remarkable revitalization of the tournament.

During the 1920s and early '30s, a succession of great Americans - including Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour and Bobby Jones - gave the British Open a worthy overseas challenge. But from the mid-'30s through the '50s, except for the sentimental triumphs of Sam Snead in 1946 and Ben Hogan in his only attempt in 1953, the leading Americans stayed away, primarily because of deficiencies in prize money and organization.

Palmer, who repopularized the view that no golfer's credentials were complete without an inscription on the large cup that replaced the morocco belt as the open prize, almost single-handedly led a new parade of greats across the Atlantic.

Palmer has not missed a British Open in 18 years. Nicklaus, who finished 29 strokes behind when Palmer won for the first time at Troon in 1962, has come back every year. That initiation was a humbling experience for a U.S. Open Champion, but Nicklaus won in 1966 at Muirfield and in 1970 at St. Andrews.

In recent years, the depth and quality of U.S. participation has been assured.

Meanwhile, since the mid-'60s, a younger and more progressive element within the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which governs British golf and organizes the Open, has asserted itself, upgrading the presentation to world-class standards commensurate with the entry. Henry Longhurst, respected on both sides of the Atlantic as a writer and commentator, calls it "unquestionably the greatest spectacle in golf."

Some longtime observers think the turning point was 1966, when the grueling 36-hole Friday finish was abandoned in favor of an extra day and a total of four rounds of 18 holes. Considerable time and energy was also invested in improving facilities and amenities for spectators and players alike.

The communications system, once primitive, is now sophisticated so that information is instantly available for the tens of thousands in attendance and millions watching on television in the United Kingdom and abroad.

There are bleachers erected at stratregic points around the links, with seating for 6,500 around the green on the 431-yard finishing hole, "Ailsa Hame."

The Open has became a popular event for corporate entertaining and a major trade mart and exposition. The huge "tented village" contains conveniences for spectators, corporate pavilions, a massive merchandise mart, and such pleasant luxuries as the popular Bollinger Champagne tent.

The Open is a source of tremendous revenue for the R and A, from television right and fees paid by boutiques and businesses for inclusion in the "tented village."

That is why Turnberry, hosting the Opens for the first time, is on trial. It is a first-class facility, and the Ailsa course is certainly fit for the crown jewel of British golf, but whether it becomes a regular stop on the rotation of open courses depends on how the R and A does financially.

There are some fears that Turnberry's distance from major population centers, and the limitations of its narrow access roads, will discourage would-be spectators. Accommodations are also a problem. The elegant 170 room Turnberry Hotel, a rambling white, turn-of-the-century structure at the top of a lovely hill overlooking sister courses, cannot even house all the players and officials. Most visitors stay in Ayr, 30 miles away, or in private houses rented out by locals.

Prices have escalated madly with demand, and not even payment in advance is protection against sudden inflation.