Inevitably, and ridiculously, a local newspaper today carried a big headline: "An Asterisk for Watson's Wins?" The accompanying story suggested Watson had an unfair advantage with illegal clubs.

Careless readers might assume Watson stole the Masters and British Open championships this year, a regular Jesse James who can putt. If punishment for incompetency were made to fit the crime, the author of that story would be caressed with a wide-grooved wedge upside the head.

It's not a question of Watson's innocence. Along with other top-ranked players, Gary Player and Raymond Floyd, to name two, Watson voluntarily submitted clubs to measurements that showed them to have grooves an eyelash too wide (40/1,000ths of an inch instead of 35/1,000ths). Like the others, Watson confessed to The Great Groove Gaffe and brought in new clubs.

The irritating part is the mistaken idea Watson is winning so much - six tournaments this year, nearly $300,000 - because he's using illegal clubs. How else, say little old Iadies in tennis shoes, could he beat dear Jack all those times?

As it happens, those illegal clubs were two-year-old replacement for Watson's old clubs that, flown in for use today, also turned out to be illegal. So Watson may not have struck a legal shot in his pro career.

Illegal is not necessarily better, however, and that is the case with Watson. His use of illegal clubs probably hurt him more than it helped, and had he used regular, legal clubs, Watson might have won the U.S. Open this year, too. For that we have the word of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

"It would be terribly unfair to Tom to say the clubs were responsible," Player said. "The difference, first of all, is so infinitesimal. And who is to say he didn't have as many shots stop short as would have rolled on?"

This takes some explaining (and then we'll get to Nicklaus). When Player speaks of shots that "stop short," he means a ball that lands on the green and, on one bounce, say, screeches to a half. Backspin on a ball is responsible for that trick, and the grooves in an iron are responsible for the backspin.

A smooth-faced club will produce backspin on a ball if both the club surface and ball are dry and nothing - grass, for instance - comes between them at impact. But because such perfect conditions rarely exist, grooves are cut into clubs to provide the tiny edges necessary for friction against the ball.

If all players swung a golf club in precisely the same plane at the same speed, the flight of the ball would depend on the width of the grooves. The wider the grooves, the more friction, the more backspin. Then aerodynamics take over; the more backspin a ball has, the higher it flies.

On the eve of the Professional Golfers Association national championship tournament here. Nicklaus took his clubs to the pro shop to have the grooves checked.

"All legel," he said after an examination by a PGA official who measured the grooves with a magnifying glass similar to a jeweler's eyepiece.

In 25 years of golf, Nicklaus said, it was the first time he'd ever had his clubs checked. Although Watson had left the course with an empty golf bag . . . although Hale Irwin walked around carrying his irons in his arms, as if daring anyone to look at them . . . although several sportswriters were suspected of using illegal typewriters. Nicklaus wasn't worried.

"The legal limit is 35/1,000ths, and MacGregor normally makes their clubs at 25 to 30/1,000ths with a 2/1,000th tolerance for error," said Nicklaus, who knows everything there is to know about golf. "I have mine made at 15/1,000th."

"I want the grooves small because if they get too big, you get the ball up too much."

Yes, jack, all us students of backspin know about aerodynamics. But tell us, would wide grooves be an advantage for Tom Watson?

"It all depends on your style of play," Nicklaus said. "If you're a fellow who can't get the ball up, it'd help. I hit it high, anyway. And so does Tom Watsson."

Asterisk, smasterisk. Watson ought to be taken straight to the Hall of Fame for winning with clubs that give Nicklaus an advantage over him.

As Nicklaus was leaving the pro shop. Player came in, laughing and carrying a sand wedge that belonged to Kermit Zarley, another touring pro. Zarley was hanging onto the club, and Player was pulling him along shouting, "If this club is legal, I will eat it."

They measured it.


"Would you like some mustard?" Nicklaus said to Zarley.

"I guarantee you," Play er said, "that 75 to 80 per cent of all the sand wedges in this tournament are illegal."

Someone said Watson was most distressed at the illegality of his pet wedge, a club he estimated was worth a shot a round, four shots a tournament - perhaps the difference between $300,000 and $100,000.

Nicklaus smiled. "Man, he's got a beauty, too." said the man who beat the British Open record and yet lost to Watson.

Player lost four clubs to the measuring glass. "And it was because the grooves were too wide way up there on the sides, where you'd never hit "the damned ball, anyway," he said.

The groovy controversy isn't over yet. By disqualifying George Burns a week ago when he volunteered his clubs for measurement - another pro had said they looked strange - the PGA has put itself in an uncomfortable position. It is not requiring players to certify the legality of their tools. That would take too long at this date. But what if the winner is accused of doing it with wide grooves?

Automobiles races require the winning car to be locked up overnight for technical inspection before the victory is official. Winners of horse races go straight to a testing barn. "I brought my clubs in because, by hell. I didn't want to be leading say. "Why, his clubs are illegal, let's check them,'" Player said.

Bob Wynn, another player, said, "I can see it now. Somebody wins. They ask to see his clubs. He says, 'They're in my car, headed for home. Sorry.'"