Tom Watson stepped to the first tee at Cherry Hills yesterday for his fourth practice round before the 78th U.S. Open. For the fourth time, he was disappointed.

"It's sad what they've done," the 1977 Master and British Open champion declared. "Palmer reaching the green off the first tee here in 1960, on the final round, and going on from there to win.The Great Charges started here. That's what everybody remembers. And now the tradition isn't there. It's a different hole."

Arnold Palmer fired 65 that day in 1960 for his only Open victory. A bronze plaque set into a small brick monument commemorates the occasion - near where the first tee used to be. None of the 153 players primed for the start of action tomorrow will be reaching that first green as quickly. Palmer's seen to that.

"My partner (in golf course design), Ed Seay, and I were asked to change a few little things about Cherry Hills," Palmer said yesterday. "The first thing we addressed ourselves to was the first hole. It was bad for the gallery and, the way it was, sloping down, well, we didn't think anybody should be able to get there with a drive."

So the hole has been lengthened by 50 yards, to 396 yards, with the tee moved back slightly and sharply to the left. A large bunker has been placed in the left of the tree-lined fairway, in the landing area of the drive.

"The new tee means most of the players will be hitting a one-iron or a two-iron or a four-wood," said host pro Warren Smith. "A few of the exceptionally long hitters might even go to a three-iron. They will try to keep the ball to the right of that trap on the left, which is about 280 from the tee. That will leave them between an eight-iron and a wedge to the green."

The hole is still more birdie than bogey, despite the modification. It is now a mild dogleg to the left but one easily approached if - and it's always a big "if" at Cherry Hills - the drive stays out of the rough.

"A good start on the easier holes is essential," Smith added. "The last 11 holes definitely are what this course is all about, although that span does include two of the three (instead of the customary four) par-5s and the par-5s here are birdieable. The (four) par-3s are tough, except for No. 8."

Statistically, Cherry Hills is about as long as anyone would want a course to be - 7,083 yards. It will play more like 6,700 for these pros, however, because of the altitude here in the Mile-High City.

"It's going to mean clubbing down a club and a half at 200 yards," Smith said. "The ball here, according to the scientists, goes 6 to 7 percent farther."

That is especially true for the big belters who get the ball high into the air. Their 260 shots are going to be closer to 290. But they must hit the ball straight. Cherry Hills' fairways are only 27 to 32 yards wide. Nine traps have been added, all on the front side. The greens are exceptionally fast and smaller than average. Smith believes a six-under-par 278 - par is 71 - will carry the four-day play.

Jack Nicklaus is favored. Nicklaus always is, even though his last victory in any of the big four tournaments was in 1975. Hubert Green, the defending champion, is given a solid chance to repeat, while Lou Graham, the runner-up in the 1977 Open, should be quite comfortable on these tight fairways.

Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Hala Irwin, Jerry Pate, Gary Player, Watson and Andy Bean also have strong backing. Bean is looking for his third victory in three weeks. Player took the Masters.