Two hours had elapsed since the postponement of the third round of the Bob Hope Desert Classic. The wind was gusting up to 40 miles as hour and a light rain had begun to fall.The practice tee at Indian Wells Country Club was empty, except for one lonely golfer.

He methodically hit ball after ball with a seven iron. In between every stroke, he'd check his swing and examine his wrist break with the care of a diamond cutter. Bucket after bucket, the routine was the same. Swing, check, pause, swing.

"I'm having trouble with my swing," Tom Watson had said before going to the practice tee. "I don't feel right."

So while his fellow pros socialized in the clubhouse, sheltered from the weather, the tour's leading money winner labored to find what he calls the perfect stroke.

"You know, the one that will produce, oh, a 59," he said, ignoring the fact that his present swing had already produced rounds of 69 and 68 here. "I want to find the swing that makes golf easy."

While some are ready to crown Watson the new king of golf, replacing Jack Nicklaus, Watson has no such illusions of grandeur. He begrudgingly admits he is a good golfer who possibly is headed for more rarified air. But for now, he's still breathing more common stuff.

This is not false modesty on Watson's part. The golfers on the pro tour have seen other potential phenoms come along, have one good year like Watson, and then fall back into the middle of the pack. They aren't ready to accept Watson as a king yet.

"Tom Watson can be a super player," says Arnold Palmer. "It depends on him now, He's almost there, almost. God, he's swinging the club well. He's coming into the height of his career. The next few years will determine it."

Nicklaus himself, long the best golfer in the world, says "His swing will get better in the next few years. He'll develop better club-head speed, he'll work on the length of his swing and his firmness of grip.

"But I'll tell you one thing.He's improved measurably in the last two years."

And Watson wants to get better. "I'm hungry," is how he puts it. That trait - the desire to improve - is the one key element that links him with Nicklaus, Palmer, Snead, Hogan and the other golfing greats. Something burns inside Watson, pushing him toward better golf, toward "that easy 59."

Miller, Watson's predecessor as Nicklaus' No. 1 challenger, says that even if th never wins another tournament "I'll remember the ones I did win and rejoice in those memories." Watson says he's already forgotten about last year's five victories and tour best winnings of $310,653.

"You can't live in the past," he said. "That is why I don't feel any pressure about living up to what I did last year. It's important to look ahead.A lot of players have looked back and have never done any more. That's not for me."

He wasn't being totally honest. He does remember one thing about last year - that lovely, effortless golf swing that enabled him to win the Masters and the British Open despite pressurized challenges by Nicklaus.

"A year ago at this time, I could do anything I wanted with my swing," he said. "You could pick out a point on the fairway, anywhere, and I could put it there.

"I didn't have to fight it at all. It just flowed. It was a great feeling, something I don't have now."

This from a golfer who opened the winter phase of the current tour with a 63 en route to winning the Tucson Open, followed two weeks later by another triumph in the Crosby. Yet Watson still spends hours on the practice tee, searching for his 1977 groove.

"Why am I still scoring well?" he said. "Because I'm fighting it. It may not be pretty right now, but at least it's effective. I'm making adjustments all the time which I won't be satisfied with in the long run. But they serve a purpose for the present.

"When I'm swinging like I am now, the only thing I can do is try my hardest on every shot. If that doesn't work, then I'll manufacture a shot. Like in the second round here, I hit a seven iron from under a tree and it went 100 yards to the green. That was a satisfying shot.

"I'm still learning about this game. The little I know tells me how much more I must learn. But at least I'm smart enought now to know that when I'm not swinging right, I should become more conservative and settle for the safe birdies and make sure I pick up the pars.

"That way, I don't score 74 or 75. I don't try to knock down the flag stick on shots. Then when the swing feels better, I can go for lower scores."

Don't dismiss this talk about his swing as some perfectionists hangup with nagging mistakes. Palmer, for one feels that if Watson does indeed complete his ascent to the top, the transition on the tour from the more natural, ad-lib free swinger to the textbook-oriented, mechanical golfer will be complete.

"Tom certainly is no Sam Snead," said Palmer. "He's much more mechanical. But that is the trend today. We are now looking for the player who is much more mechanical in his method and system. The days when the tour was dominated by the natural rhythm swinger like Sam Snead are over.

"Nicklaus was the link between the two systems. He proved you could combine rhythm and mechanics. He proved it beyond the shadow of a doubt."

When Snead had a problem with his swing, he would depend on patience and Mother Nature to solve it. When Watson has a problem, he systematically tries to break down the components of his game, much like taking apart sections of an engine to find a worn gasket.

His is a world of let-to-right ball movement, wrist breaks measured back swing, bent elbows and angle trajectory. Improvement depends on picturing perfection in his mind, then matching the ideal with actual performances.

This is the same Watson who used to get up at 5 a.m. to drive 90 miles an hour from Stanfort to Pebble Beach so he could play 36 holes the same day. And this is the same Watson who says only his wife Linda can understand the sacrifice he already has made to get this far.

"People who think you just suddenly become a good golfer are wrong," he said. "Linda knew me before I became a professional and has seen me come in from the dark after wearing blisters on my hands from practicing and beating balls.

"If I don't keep working hard on my game now, there are 50 persons who can pass me. And if I don't keep working I can never be a true golfer that I know I can be from last year's results. I found out one important thing last year. When you are playing well and you are swinging just right, there is no pressure. Things are too easy, then, for pressure to bother you."