Gene Littler, a walking hospital ward, shot a five-under-Par 67 today to take the first-round lead in the 59th PGA Championship over a mist-shrouded Pebble Beach course.

Meanwhile, Tom Watson, center of a controversy involving illegal clubs, used a set borrowed from a fellow competitor to forge a 68, tying him for second place with Jerry McGee.

The 47-year-old Littler, winner of the 1961 U.S. Open, underwent surgery for cancer of the lymph glands in 1972 and was off the tour for 16 months.

And today he returned to action following a six-week layoff after treatment for what he described as "a lower back problem for a degenerated disc." He said he took therapy from a chiropractor who described his ailment as a "sacro-separation."

He added, "I used to scoff at guys with back problems, but what I had was really bad. I had occasional twinges which went away in a couple of days but this was so bad I had to take a long rest."

Two long shots back of Littler were Jack Nicklaus, Lanny Wadkins and George Cadle, a 29-year-old pro from Pineville, Ky., who has won $33,000 on the tour so far this year. Johnny Miller, long out of the list of leaders in the weekly events, was in a group at 70, while those shooting 71 included Lee Trevino and former University of Maryland golf captain George Burns. Trevino was three under par until he double-bogeyed the eighth hole.

Watson, who had his clubs examined Wednesday and found that the irons had grooves that did not meet specifications due to an error by the Ram Co. in casting the dies, overcame a double frustration with his fine round with the borrowed clubs.

Watson had another set of irons, his old ones made by the Macgregor Co., shipped in this morning. He asked to have them examined and, much to his dismay, these were ruled illegal, too. So Watson borrowed an extra set that tour regular Roger Malthie had brought along and these passed inspection.

When told of Watson's plight, Miller coached, "What's he playing with, rentals?"

Scores of golfers had their clubs checked Wednesday night and this morning and also discovering one or more illegal clubs from different manufacturers were Tom Weiskopf, Kermit Zarley, Hale Irwin, Leonard Thompson and John Lister.

"I had my clubs checked this morning, too," said Nicklaus. "I understand that tour commissioner Deane Beman will have all clubs checked for every tournament from now on."

Littler had no problem with his grooves. "I've been using the same set of Ram clubs I've used for 2 1/2 years," he said, "and they passed inspection. I guess the grooves are all worn off by now."

Littler had a 33-34 round, providing a great homecoming for the San Diego native to his "mother" course." "I guess I've been playing Pebble Beach for 30 years," Littler explained. "I won the Crosby here in 1975 and I also won the California State State Amateur in 1953.

"I think Pebble is one of the great courses in the world. But there are so many potential disasters you have to play it with respect."

Littler started with birdies on the first hole, from three feet, and on the par-five second when he was on in two adn-two-putted from 30 feet. He saved par on the fifth when he came out of the bunker to within two feet and on the eighth when he had to make a six-foot putt.

He birdied the ninth, putting a five-iron shot four feet from the cup. He parred the next five holes in routine fashion, but had to stink a tricky six-footer for par on the 15th.

He birdied the 16th with an eight-footer, parred the 17th and put a wedge five feet from the cup on 18 and made the putt for his final birdie.

Nicklaus parred the first six holes, considered by the pros the easiest on the course. He broke through with a 13-foot birdie on the tough 107-yard seventh hole, extending into Carmel Bay. He got his second birdie on the ninth when he rolled in a 45-foot putt.

"I was just trying to figure some way to get down in two," he confessed.

Inspired by that putt, Nicklaus put a four-iron shot 20 feet from the hole and birdied the 10th. He followed that with a birdie on the 11the after hitting eight feet from the hole with his eight-iron approach shot.

He caught his only bogey on the 16th after he missed the green.

"I was off to a slow start because I was playing conservatively," Nicklaus admitted. "I gained more confidence as I went along. I was surprised that the greens were as good as they were today but they can change. In other words, the greens will get harder and tougher as the week goes on."

Miller, as casual as ever, insisted "I'm not over the hill yet. You can quote me on that. "I've been close a couple of times this year and if I can get in contention the last couple of rounds, I can win. The greens are sneaky-fast and just right at this point. I didn't play great but I played good."

Burns had a great start with a three-under par 33, including three birdies, all within six feet. But he faltered on the back, taking a bogey on the short 12th and a double-bogey six on the 13th when he missed the green and then three-putted.