Golf is the gentle killer.

The air here at lush Doral Country Club is as soft as though the breezes blew Chanel No. 5.

A single room can cost $100 a day, and the $20 steaks in the Conquistador Room are two inches thick.

The lakes are blue, the sand white, the grass a deep July green in March.An enormous flower bed in red and gold carnations spells out the word "Doral" in letters six-feet long.

"This, looks like the good life," says touring pro Roger Maltbie. "And it is for Jack Nicklaus. But there are 400 of us pros out here. It's no secret that the number of us making money are few and none."

In al of sports The Tour, the PGA tour, comes closest to looking like the promised land.

The hours are short - four hours, four days a week.

The pay is huge - $10 million in 1978 purses.

The career can last 40 years - Sam Snead proved it.

Twenty-five players earned $100,000 on The Tour last year. For them the air is perfume, the steaks thick. For practice balls they hit new Titleists.

But the tropical elegance of Doral is a mask of The Tour, which may be the most tense, cruel and unforgiving corner of American sport.

The Tour is pure laissez faire capitalism and Social Darwinism placed behind a thick glass partition of good manners. The public does not have to listen to the screams.

On this tour, there are three castes: the haves, the have-nots and those in transit.

Greg Powers, 32-year-old golf rabbit, woke up before dawn on the most important Sunday of his life.

Through the dark glass of receding sleep, his fanciful dream came back to him.

Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf were waiting for him on the first tee to play 36 holes on the final day of the $200,000 Doni Open. The 7,065-yard Blue Monster was waiting. The national TV cameras were waiting.

That gorgeous, towering scoreboard, showing Powers just two shots off the lead, was waiting.

Then, in a flash, Powers remembered it was all true. The chance to win more money, more recognition and more security than he had in his whole struggling 20 years of golf were all waiting for him.

Three times he had worked his way up the golf mountain to the pinnacle of The Tour. Twice he had fallen to the bottom, losing his tour card without ever leaving a ripple on the golf scene.

This day, this tournament, would be his break. With two decent rounds he could win enough cash to secure his card for 1979. Finally, his luck was turning.

At 8:12 a.m. Powers stepped to the tee. Nicklaus and Weiskopf had long, illustrious introductions. "Next to hit is Greg Powers," the announcer said. After a pause came: "The Tennessee sectional champion."

Powers' first drive on the 543-yard left-curving par-5 was a sickening hook that careened lakeward until only ripples remained.

"I was numb," Powers said.

Powers' mind gradually became a sort of groggy blur. After dropping a new ball into the dewy, tangled rough two club-lengths from the lake, Powers gouged an iron shot out of the grass - and again into the lake.

Nicklaus and Weiskopf looked away. Such visions can be contaminating.

Power lashed again. And again hooked into the drink. Three swings, three different clubs, three splashes.

As the third ball went under, it might as well have been Power's drowning.

"I thought, 'Oh, God, I'm going to be on this hole all day. They're going to leave me here in this rough.'"

When Powers took his third drop, the ball buried itself again in an impossible smoothered lie.

"Honestly," Powers said, "it passed through my mind that I was going to take a 20 on the hole, walk off the course and go back to bed."

When the counting was done, Powers had used up all his fingers. His scores for the first hole was 10. That's ten.

Out of pity, the teen-ager carrying the threesome's scoreboard took down Powers' score, leaving only a blank hole in the sign next to his name.

Eventually, Nicklaus explained to Powers that he need not have dropped his fall ball in the wet rough, but might legally have dropped in the fairway.

"It helps to know the rules," Powers said. "That one thing would have saved me four shots . . . It would have saved my whole tournament."

Thanks to Nicklaus, Powers rediscovered his smile despite an 80-74 performance that knocked his check down from visions of five figures to $365.

Though locked in 10 hours of combat with Weiskopf, Nicklaus chatted with Powers as though they were old buddies. When Nicklaus eagled the 28th hole, Powers was so comfortable with him that Powers laid out his hand, palm up, for a luxurious, '50s-style "gimme-some-skin" slap.

"Jack calmed me down and told me at least I had a cheap greenside seat for his battle with Weiskopf," chuckled Powers. "But, the truth is, I never recovered any part of my game plan after that, after that . . ."

Powers did not finish the sentence.

Powers has no illusions. A steady country club job awaits him in Nashville. But he's going to give the Tournament more fling. Only young once.

Bob Eastwood, however, is still sure he is a great athlete. At age 21 he won the medal (first prize) in the qualifying school to get on the tour.

That was 10 seasons ago.He was called "Bobby" Eastwood then, and people said, "That boy can ring up some low numbers."

Now Eastwood travels the country in a mobile home, trying to scrimp and make ends meet. This month he drove from California to Florida.

"Some guys couldn't look at those four walls," he says. "They'd go crazy."

But Eastwood's vision of his talent held him together. His wife is back in Stockton. His two youngsters are growing up. He thinks of his little boy playing with a sawed off three-wood in the back yard.

"I miss 'em," he says. "But I belong out here. I can play this game."

Eastwood has almost the same body as Nicklaus - huge legs, Popeye forearms, perfect golf size (5-foot-10, 175 pounds). He starred in a half-dozen sports. Baseball scouts wanted him 10 years ago. "My position? I played 'em all."

But if it wasn't for bad luck, Bob Eastwood would have no luck at all. This week was typical.

On Wednesday a $15,000 Porche sat beside Dorals 15th green - the prize for any man making a hole in one there.

On Friday, Eastwood made a hold in-one on the 15th on his way to a blistering 65.

Did Eastwood win a Porche to keep his mobile home company? Of course not. On Thursday the car dealership that offered the Porche had discovered it couldn't get proper risk insurance to cover the car. So they withdrew it.

"Yeah, after I made the hole in one, I noticed that the Porche wasn't there anymore," Eastwood said. "No, I'm not surprised. I have one other hole in one on the tour. They gave away a Mercedes on that hole the following year. I was a year too soon."

Eastwoods hole in one epitomized the tour life of a whole class of pros.

"It was a thrill," Eastwood said, "but really nobody saw it. A few (crowd-control) marshals did some yelling up on the green, but there were less than a dozen people on the tee."

"It's lonely for most of us out here, even when we're on the course," explains Maltbie, who won $117,736 in 1976. "Nobody cares what you're doing. You can be very successful and nobody knows you."

"Bob Guilder shot 65 and nobody saw him. Eastwood, the same. People pay to see Nicklaus. Even if you're in his group and have a huge gallery, hundreds of people are scrambling to the next tee after he putts out, even if you still have a three-footer.

"Face it, you can feel very alone in the middle of a whole lot of people."

Tom Watson was still on the practice tee at sundown. He had just shot 76-72 - 148 and missed the cut by three shots. Cynics in his gallery had said he looked disinterested like a man tired of golf and anxious to bug out.

But Watson, the latest heir apparent to Nicklaus, wasn't on a plane out of Doral. He was drilling two irons.

"Rik, can you come help me," Watson said to Rik Massengale. "Am I crossing the line."

The two pros. stood for 20 minutes, Watson hitting one ball then turning to this relative unknown to get critique.

"The club face feels like it's shut at the top of my swing. The swing's just not in one piece. The takeaway feels all wrong. See?" Watson said, almost pleading as he show Massengale the angle of his wrist, the plane of his swing, the pronation of his wrists after impact.

Massengale commiserated then went back to his own bucket of balls.

Watson hits a dozen more balls. Massengale has left. Watson spots an unknown tour rookie, Lee Mikles, who hasn't won as much money in his life as Watson as in one week.

"Hey, Lee," Watson calls, "can you come watch me?"

Only one man on The Tour is at peace with the game of golf - Jack Nicklaus. For the rest, there is the nightmare of a tiny injury that will change the magic stroke, or the subtle aging of the body, or the hundred things that can make the mysterious golf swing disintergrate.

"All the vital technical parts of the swing take place in back of you, or above your head," Maltbie says. "It's terrifying to think of all the gremlins that can creep into your game. Our margin for error is infinitesimal."

The one inflexible law of the tour is that the hot player of today is a better than even-money shot to be in eclipse six months later.

"It's no illusion that we all seem to be on a roller coaster," says one player. "Johnny Miller went from No. 1 to No. 50 almost overnight.

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"Dave Hill - a great student of the swing - won $117,000 one year and $17,000 the next. Think that doesn't scare people? It can happen to anybody."

The Tour's hundreds of have-nots are a constant - the rabbits ye shall always have with you. And a handful of Sneads, Hogans and Nicklauses span generations.

But The Tour's great middle class, its most fascinating and agonized members, are the players in transit: going down, or fighting their way up.

"You become accustomed to good living," says John Mahaffey, who won $375,000 in three years, almost won the U.S. Open in 1975, then skidded to No. 150 on the money list last year.

"You scrimp and save on the way up as a kid. You don't mind staying at less-than-the-best motels, and cutting corners, and long drives between tournaments. You expect it. But once you make it, you take the good life for granted.

"When you crash, like I did, it's a lot harder to go through that scrimping and saving the second time. You are used to living high and spending fast."

Mahaffey finished third at Doral, winning $14,000 - $5,000 more than all last season.

"This means just about everything to me," Mahaffey says, with almost embarrassing conviction. "I had to have hard times to learn how much I loved the tour. I'm just tickled to be back out here.I took the tour for granted, but I never will again. I'm re-most feel like a rookie again. I'm rellearning how to deal with all the plateaus of pressure and concentration on the way back to the top."

Mahaffey often sounds like a man doing penance, asking Tour deities for forgiveness.

"I've gone through injuries, divorce, money problems," he says. "I didn't know what I had when I had it. It was a fool."

The Tour offers no other show like the spontaneous Lee Trevino show. If it did, The Tour would be in great financial health, rather than simply good health.

"I wish we'd raise some rough out here on this darn tour and back up some of these wild hitters," Trevino says in what is simply one of his 20 candid monologues in any day. "A blind man could keep it in these damn fairways.

"The only regular course we play all year that has real U.S. Open or PGA type rough is the Colonial in Fort Worth. You're liable to lose your bag in that stuff, mister."

"But the rest of these places, including the Masters, which is a tournament I could do without, they don't have no trouble at all. These young boys just step up and take a deep breath.

"You let that rough grow and watch 'em take that deep breath. They'll choke to death."

Ask Trevino how he likes the slick greens at Nicklaus' new Muirfield course and he snaps back, "You better nick your dimes (ball markers) with your spikes or the ball'll slide off the dime and roll off the green."

What's the Blue Monster's toughest hole? "Well, both them par 3s into the wind - the fourth and 13th - seen me coming and said, 'We're gonna give this chubby little Mex a bogey.' I just hit my driver up short and said, 'Thank you for my bogey."

What words of encouragement does Trevino have for Fuzzy Zoeller before Mr. Zoeller must play in a 40-mph wind? "Fuzzy," crows Trevino, "I thought your palms were bleeding yesterday from choking that poor golf club so tight. That was before the wind started to blow. They'll be GUSHIN' today,"

If The Tour has a conspicuous problem, it is that there are no clones of Tervino. The great players are usually wrapped in their self-imposed isolation booth of concentration like Nicklaus and Hogan while everybody else is too nervous and uptight to show their emotions.

"Sure, we could use about a dozen Reggie Jacksons," Maltbie says. "But can he play golf?"

"In other sports emotion is an asset," Eastwood says. "You get mad and knock somebody on his butt. In golf, emotion is the enemy. You keep it inside or you go crazy. Maybe you go crazy anyway."

Arnold Palmer, who hasn't won in five years, still packs 'em in better than anyone except Nicklaus.

When Larry Nelson was asked for an autograph this week, he said, "Ma'am, I'll sign Arnold's name for you, too, since he's not playing here this week."

The Tour's purses have doubled in 10 years, but even that steady progress cannot match the general pro sports boom.

Nine golfers won $135,000 last year. The average salary of each of 25 Philadelphia Phillies was $140,000.

Watson personifies the bland workaholic star. He and a dozen double-knit near-duplicates dominate the Top 20 with their good manners, faint smiles and textbook games.

Meanwhile, the one unique of The Tour - Nicklaus - plays fewer tournaments each year.

"Jack has so many hobbies and businesses that it's a special even when he plays golf," jokes Chi Chi Rodriguez. "He's the only man I know who is a legend in his spare time."

Nevertheless, The Tour's major limitation is not its quota of colorful personalities. The sport's brutal logistics - both for on-the-course fans and TV viewers - is the unsolved problem.

"Our fans know the intricacies of our sport because they play it themselves," Maltbie says. "But the golf fan - even the one who visits The Tour - sees few of those intracicies.

The crowds that surround the leaders of a tournament make if difficult for anyone who must stay outside the restraining ropes to get a close view of any two shots in a row. Leapfrogging ahead of the mob, then waiting, is the only solution - a poor one.

It is typical of The Tour that barely a thousand people witnesses one of the highlights of Nicklaus' career Sunday. Far out on the course, a mile from the clubhouse and before the final TV holes, Nicklaus sank three sand wedge shots within the space of four holes - the last two, from 57 and 53 yards for eagles on long par 5s.

Perhaps Nicklaus has never before truly astonished himself. But on the 12th hole he did it. He had been joking about his deadly wedge for two holes, telling his caddie, Angelo Argea, at the 11th to "put away that silly driver and gimme my wedge again."

In the 12th fairway he claims to have told Angelo, "If the last one was 57 yards, I've just got to hit this one a yard farther, right?"

For all to hear he called out, "Hey, Angle, isn't anybody going to tend the flag?"

When his shot died into the cup on its last roll, Nicklaus was too amazed to do any of his well-known, well-practiced little dances or smils. He dropped his wedge backward over his head as if it had shocked him. He smacked both hands over his head and looked straight up.

Then for at least 10 seconds, as the crowd screamed, Nicklaus stood in the middle of the fairway, hands on the head, mouth open, eyes straight up, and revolved himself in tiny circles like a child trying to make himself dizzy.

"It was unbelievable," he said later.

"I was beginning to believe the things I've read about myself . . . For the rest of the round it was almost like I was outside myself watching to see what was going to happen next."

That moment on the most remote fairway of the Blue Monster, was typical of the best of The Tour: few saw it; fewer understood.

"I can't say that golf is the most technical of all sports," Maltbie says, "but it seems like it. Even a Nicklaus can't understand something like what he did today. It's beyond the laws of probability."

Golf is the gentle killer, teasing its pursuer, giving up its secrets, then taking them back without warning.

"Good times, bad times," Maltbie says. "They're both hard to grasp. I've only won two tournaments, but I won them in consecutive weeks."

After the second shocking victory, Maltbie was given a $40,000 first-prize check. Incredibly, he let it fall out of his hip pocket at the bar at the Pleasant Valley Country Club. Maltbie was reembursed, but the check is framed and mounted over the Pleasant Valley bar in Sutton, Mass.

"When I left the golf course, I had $500 in cash and a $40,000 check," Maltie says. "When I woke up the next morning in another town, I went through my pockets and didn't have a dime.