Jack Nicklaus, the great but disgrunted bear that always lurks in the woods around the Firestone Country Club, was growling and picking burrs out of his hide today.

He knows that the World Series of Golf that begins Friday with an elite field of 20 is his last chance in '77 to take a sweet memory into hibernation with him from this most trying year of his career.

"I've been in position three times to win a major tournament this year," he said toady, as close to being testy as he ever allows himself to be in public. Kings aren't supposed to complain. "And I haven't won a thing," said Nicklaus, who forgets victories in little clambakes like the Inverrary Classic, the Tournament of Champions and his own Muirfield event.

"I've been that close to my best year ever," he said, holding two fingers about a hundredth of an inch apart.

No one asked if that minute width represented the margin of his shortcomings or the illegal width of the grooves in the heads of the clubs Tom Watson used to beat him in the Masters and British Open.

"Not having won," continued Nicklaus, "makes me particularly anxious to win here. It would probably make me the leading money winner and I'd certainly enjoy being top money winner again. That's a significant part of your record."

Nothing else in 1977 has met Nicklaus' standards for "significance."

Nicklaus enters this World Series - now in its second year of a revamped, expanded format - with $273,343 in money winnings. Watson, with four tour victories to Nicklaus' three, has $298, 428.

This tournament's field has been chosen in a scrupulously tough manner.

Qualifying standards for the World Series are:

Winners of the Big Four Tournaments (Masters, U.S. and Britian Open and PGA), plus the TPC, Western and Canadian Open, and the World Cup.

Winners of the PGA winter, spring and summer tours.

Top five on both the PGA money list and the Vardon Stroke Average.

Winners of two or more PGA tour events.

Winners of the Asian, Australian, British, Japanese and South African orders of merits.

This last category gives the field the so-called "international flavor." At least five of the 20 players here are far over their heads. Hsieh Min-nau, Mark Lye, Ernesto Acosta, Severiano Ballesteros and Isao Aoki have almost no chance.

American pros Mark Hayes and Mike Morley, who qualified with hot streaks on the tour, have both cooled.

In short, this field includes the top eight on the PGA money list, plus a handful of other legitimate contenders - Ben Crenshaw, Lee Trevino and Graham Marsh.

It is in just such truncated "all-star" fields that Nicklaus has always had his easiest victories. The tougher the course and the msaller the field, the less chance there is for him to be beaten by an unknown with a hot putter.

Several of the 14 American pros in the field have questioned the propriety of the World Series $100,000 first-place money.

"It does seem that whatever happens here will determine the leading money winner every year," said Tom Weiskopf today, knowing well that Nicklaus' victory here last year salvaged top money honors, and considerable prestige.

Nicklaus, sitting next to Weiskopf after their practice round together, gave Weiskopf a reprimanding glare that must have sesemed as sharp as a cleat to the shin.

"Well," said Weiskopf, currently the third money man at $188,597, "nine years out of 10 anyway."

"Grump," went Nicklaus, looking away.

Nicklaus was also touchy about the state of his game. "My game?" he started seeming both bored and disgusted. "I won't know until tomorrow. I don't really know. Sometimes I don't break 80 in practice rounds. I just threw the ball out of the rough all day today.

"But," added Nicklaus, reversing field, "I guess I am playing reasonably well."

Whose woods these are Nicklaus thinks he knows. They're his. He's won $489,930 on this Firestone South Course. It's a long, mean track just made for a golden bear.

There's lots of that deep rough that only his paws can gauge a ball out of. And the heart of the course are seven par-fours, each more than a quarter of a mile long. Nicklaus' great, powerful iron play was made for such holes.

What of delicate wedges, Nicklaus' bane? No wedge here. Don't even bother to carry one.

Beside Nicklaus and Weiskopf, those two Ohioans for whom this brutal, 7,180'yard, par-70 course seems to have been invented, Watson and Hale Irwin are seen as strong favorites.

Watson has been consistent all year, while Irwin, known for his affection for large purses, had to win last week's World Open at Pinehurst to get here. Irwin not only won by five shots, but fired a course-record 20-under par 264, the lowest four-round score of the year.

If the No. 1 topic of conversation is "Who will win?" the second subject always seems to be "How much does all this mean? Is the World Series now the fifth major tournament in golf?"

Certainly PGA commissioner Deane Beman and everyone connected with the PGA is throwing total support behind his event as "the fifth major."

Beman says he feels the World Series should both end the golf year and be its climax.

"We have a unique format with the best players from all over the world. We've got just what we want right now - the best players from this particular season playing for the largest prize of the year.