Firestone Country Club offered as merciful a test today as if ever will, yet the 20 men in the World Series of Golf marched off the 7,130-yard monster like refugees from a death march.

"This course is like the Army," said Lee Trevino, one of the big names who didn't approach par 70 with his 74."Once you get drafted, you just try to stay out of the brig."

The only men who admitted they were happy were Ray Floyd. Hale Irwin and Tom Whiskopf, who tied for the first-round lead 67.

"I actually played fairly well," Floyd beamed, with contradicting the censensus of moans. "And I putted fairly well."

Floyd started birdie-birdie, then had a chance to fall into one of his blue "I-hate-myself" moods, the kind that occasionally lead him into rounds of 16 before he knows what happened.

After a pair of bogeys at three and four, plus a miserably weak chip at the long par-four, Floyd was ready to blow a gasket. But he sank a 12-foot putt to save par at eight and suddenly his sun was out again.

"There's always something that gets you rolling. No matter what these guys say, there's always a reason for a good round."

Floyd immediately birdied the next three holes to go three under. Irwin and Weiskopf on the other hand, had to roll in 25-foot birdie putts at the 18th in the last twosome of the day to get a share of the lead.

But this was the sort of perfect-for-scoring day that left many golfers disgruntled with numbers they would normally embrace.

Mark Hayes, alone in fourth after a 68, muttered, "I played really bad, hit it just awful wild. If I don't start driving it better, I don't even know if I'll finish."

Jack Nicklaus, tournament favorite, was just as peeved after a 69 that tied him with Seve Ballesteros, Lanny Wadkins, Gary Player and Graham Marsh in a five-way bottle neck in fifth place.

"Basically, I played a pretty darn good round of golf," Nicklaus said after hitting 17 greens in regulation and making only two birdies. "I was close enough often enough to make some putts, but they just didn't drop."

Rain delayed the start of play for 40 minutes, but also made the green soft and receptive to the long irons this course demands. By the time a hot sun broke thorough. Firestone offered perfect windles conditions.

"This was the day to score," said Weiskopf, who started with back-to-back birdies and ended the same way. In between he made several remarkable saving putts - a 25-footer for a par at the 460-yard 13th and a 15-footer for bogey at the 230-yard 15th.

Irwin, fresh off a 20-under-par victory in the World Open last week at Pinehurst, spoke for most of the field when he said, "I just tried not to make that one unrecoverable mistake. I'll still settle for 72 straight pars here and take my chances on trotting off with that $100,000 first prize."

While there was little to chose among the nine men below par, the real news was that two pretournament big names left themselves considerable ground to make up.

Tom Watson, current leading money-winner on the tour, and Hubert Green, U.S. Open champion each shot 37-35-72.

"It's hard to get those shots back once you've given them away," said Player, who has won three World Series here under the old four-man format that was changed last year. "This course just never lets up. It's a monster."

Perhaps the man who knows that best is Mark (Unplayable) Lye, the unknown who got into this tournament by winning something called the Australian Order of Merit.

"He's one of the nicest gentleman I've played with," said Lye's partner, Player. "But I think he was bit nervous."

At the third hole Lye knocked a five-iron shot in the pond in front of the 450-yard par four, dropped out, then chipped back into the water on the way to a quadruple-bogey eight. Lye finished with 78, three strokes higher than anyone else, and found so much trouble that nearly two holes opened up between him and Player and the group in front of them at one point.

The three leaders all seem well qualified to win here. Floyd holds the course record on 264 in winning the Amercican Golf Classic, while Irwin is red hot. Weiskopf, along with Nicklaus, have the perfect style games for this layout which demands long, accurate drives and powerful long-iron play.

"As the tournaments go on here," said Hayes, "the course seems to take over. You can get away with hitting it all over the place one day, like I did today, if you think well. But in the long run, the course just keeps knocking you down until you can't get up anymore.

"It will take it's toll on me a lot faster than some others."

Only the long hitters survive. "It is unrelenting for those of us who are only modestly long," said Marsh, with marvelous Australian restraint. "Just a few wayward shots and you've gone awry for good."

If Irwin and Nicklaus played model tee-to-green rounds, and Weiskopf, with his 29 putts, was the magician of the modestly paced greens, then Floyd and Hayes played the over-the-river-and-through-the-woods style of golf that galleries love.