Today was Raymond Floyd's 35th birthday. How time sneaks up, even on golf's pretty boy Floyd.

For a decade he was the PGA's designated wastrel. With his curly brown hair that looked like he had just brushed the hayseeds out of it, Floyd was Joe Namath with a pitching wedge.

When Floyd walked by, talking that Tar Heel talk, flirting with the more scenic parts of the gallery, and seemingly paying no attention whatsoever to golf, the older folks on the tournament committee would shake their heads and say, "There goes one of the game's great wasted talents."

But time, instead of rusting Floyd's' skills, has taught him how to use them.

When he strolled in after an opening 67 in this Labor Day weekend's World Series of Golf, Floyd said soberly "I had a couple of lapses in concentration today. At least twice I hit a shot and realized afterward that my mind simply hadn't been on the business at hand."

Then Floyd paused and smiled, "Of course, I can remember the time when I could play 18 holes of golf and never concentrate on one shot."

From the profligate who finished higher than 24th on the money list only once in his first 11 seasons, Floyd has suddenly joined the solemn, buttoned-down guys at the pinnacle of the sport.

Dating from the time of his stabilizing marriage in late 1973, Floyd's position on the prize list has climbed each year - from 77th in 73 to 18th, 13th, seventh and now sixth.

Floyd has won $152,095 this year and his career high last year of $178,318 could be ancient history when this World Series is over. The third spot behind Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson on the cash list is within his reach with a first or second-place finish here.

It is refreshing to find and athlete who has suddenly blossomed who does not attribute the transformation to a revelation on the road to the Damascus Open or a new meditation position.

"I've just mellowed," said Floyd. "It's only recently that I've begun to like to play golf. It's part maturity, part hard work. The game's enjoyable now."

Floyd enjoys the position of youthful elder statesman enormously. Unlike most athletes, he is a fanatical sports fan.

"I'll talk about baseball while I'm eating," said Floyd as he gulped down a paper plate full of lasagna less than an hour before his tee time, "but not golf. I may be more relaxed these days, but thinking about playing for $100,000 can give anybody indigestion."

Whether the topic is the sore knee of Jerry Morales of the Chicago Cubs or the intricacies of the NFL draft, Floyd ranks with Pete Rose as a connoisseur of the inconsequential.

However, it is the history and development of golf that really fascinate the University of North Carolina graduate. Now that he is an oldster who has passed the million mark in career earnings (last month) and has two sons, Ray Jr., aged 2 and Robert, 1 - Floyd feels he is entitled to speak his piece.

"When Bobby Jones played," said Floyd, "There weren't 10 guys who could beat him on their best day and his worst. When I broke in (1963), probably only 50 guys were capable of winning.

"Now all the young players are taught to hit it 350 yards. Then they're taught to gear down, learn finesse. But now power is everywhere. There're 250 players who could win a tournament.

"You can't sit back now and play cautiously. Not even Nicklaus. You've got to keep humming birdies from the first hole to the last or 30 guys pass

Floyd is particularly proud that his skills have flowered during this golf talent rush. "I've always played the toughest courses best," he said. "I approve of small greens, even the humpbacked ones that were built long ago by rolling the greens up with a horse-and-drag.

"The trouble shots, the finesse shots that make you use your brain . . . that's the pleasure of the game, creating shots.

"That may be part of why I'm doing well. We're playing tougher courses every year . . . Muirfield, Butler national, Firestone. We now play a dozen layouts a year that look like the U.S. Open courses of the past.

"Twenty years ago Pinehurst No. 2 was the monster golf course for length. Now we go back there and it's just another course. hale Irwin shot 20-under there last week. That was once unthinkable."

No score, no matter how low, has ever seemed unthinkable to Floyd. He shares the Masters course record of 271 with Nicklaus and his amazing 268 here at Firestone South remains four shots better than any other man's.

Those marks may stand a long while since many tracks are "tricked up" today to retain their prestige amidst the birdie wars.

"They're ruining the traditional courses," lamented Floyd.

"Every time I go back to Oakland Hills or Oakmont, they've pushed the tees back into somebody's front yard to lengthen the course. But if they didn't we'd be bustin' members (records) every week.

"The young players today never stop going for the flag. They're conditioned to think that no recovery shot is impossible. The tough courses have done that. Once, if you had a hard bunker shot, you said, Well, I've bogeyed this one."

But now you gamble on inventing a way to get close. You just have to. Every person on tour has improved their bunker play in the last 10 years . . . out of necessity.

"If the great players of the past cameback today - Jones, Gene Sarazen, even Ben Hogan - it would be like amateurs against pros. I'd qualify that by saying that I assume if they were given the same circumstances - equipment, nutrition, teaching methods - they'd be just as good in this era as they were in their own."

Despite all the changes Floyd has seen, one is even more dramatic than the technical advances in playing.

"We have finally become aware of our fans," he said with a smile. "Sports like football and baseball have built-in color - the manager gets fired, somebody holds out or punches his teammate. In golf each individual is a team of one. All we have to sell is our talent and our personalities.

"If I don't sell myself, let people know who I am, then the galleries are going to yawn when I walk up the fairway. Men like Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus and Lee Trevino have proved that you can be attractive to the public in 100 per cent different ways."

Then the new Ray Floyd swallowed his last bite of lasagna and headed for the first tee. "Did you just eat all that?" asked Nicklaus, pointing at the clean-as-a-whistle paper plate.

"Well, five minutes ago," said Floyd, sheepishly.

Nicklaus made a horrible face of disbelief. "Same old Floyd," he said.