Professional golf is going through a perplexing identify crisis that can easily become even more nettlesome.

It has taken less than three months of this year's PGA tour to demonstrate the precariousness of the game's mass popularity.

Television ratings are down-25 percent for some events-and with good reason.

Little-known and, in some cases, eminently forgettable players have won half of the year's events. The first 10 tournaments were won by 10 different players-hardly stuff of on-going drama.

Worst, the lodestar of the sport, Jack Nicklaus, is in the midst of the most disturding slump of his carrer.

Golf is in danger of becoming a game without a single dominant player about whom the sporting public cares deeply.

The gypsy caravan known as the pro tour does not offer teams-only individuals. It needs a star system, demands it for success.

Since golf has no home-team lure, it can only sell personolity. And that commodity is in dangerously short supply.

The emergence of one new star in a constellation of old ones is the best possible situation. That's what golf wishes it had.

The arrival of many good but unfamiliar players on an already cluttered and poorly defined scence is the worst possible situation. And that's what golf has.

The confusion caused by a welter of first-time tour winners-Lon Hinkle, Fuzzy Zoeller, Bob Byman, Larry Nelson, Mark McCumber-is an unneeded headache. Each camouflages the other

Golf has become a sport with too many good players and not enough great ones, a game that has too much character and not enough characters. This introspective, almost profound game sets a high standard of spectating while lacking shallow easy-to-comprehend melodrama. It is, at times, too fine a thing for its own good-a sport truly accessible only to those who already play it and love it.

At the simplest level, golf is a game where someone hits a ball into a hole with a stick. At the highest level, it is the game that pits man aganist himself and man aganist nature.

In the cauldron of mass popularity, however, the sport will always be seen as man versus man. That is the beginning of the big misunderstanding.

Golfers essentially are isolated, men who practice alone, play alone, depend on no one else. Theirs is the mind game, and most of their great battles are fought on an unseeable field.

Their humor is gallows wit that only other sufferers at the hand of the devil's game can understand. Their pain often is to subtle, and too personal, for them to express.

Worst of all for the omnivorous sports public, golfers play the most insecure and mysterious of games. No one knows what makes the golf swing tick or what makes it explode. It is a game of infinite science and infinite magic.

Therefore, champions are usually reticent in victory. They fear their own game, aware that it can betray them in a single day no matter how hard they work.

Golf is the humbling game and none knows it better than the best. It is an illusion that the polyster pros are all meekly obedient sons, country club clones stamped from the same dull mold.

Their problem is not that they are spiritless, but that golf has ingrained in them a fierce restraint, an almost estetic low-flame moderation. Acceptance of constant failure is, for them, tantamount to a religious vow.

This often comes across, however, as emotional catatonia.

"It is my goal to play 72 holes without changing the expression on my face," said Jack Renner, 22 who finished third at last week's TPC. "If Ben Hogan could do it, I can, too."

It took the young, fat Nicklaus a decade to learn his on-course smiles and minijokes that now are as studied as a seven-iron pitch and run. To help sell his game, Nicklaus learned to put "on" and "off" switches on his formidale concentration. No other current golfer, alas, has even tried to learn that knack.

Golf has been blessed with a hadful of natural showmen-Walter Hagen, Jimmy Demaret, Lee Trevino-who have helped keep the game prosperous.

Nevertheless, it is part of the perverse nature of the game that the large majority of the top players will be from a similar mold-thoughtful, analytical, neat, and under as near total self-control as their tormenting sport allows.

What saves them as sellers of the game is their excellence, their standing as bona fide champions.

It is a freak of athletic nature that one champion was Arnold Palmer. Golf's Goble fits in no category. The refined, well-mannered world of golf cannot bank on any more like him. They aren't part of the package.

Tennis, by contrast, seems to stumble periodically on its magnificent barbarians, even in the blazer-and martini set. Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and budding bore John McEnroeare the sort of brooding hero-villains that golf seems to weed out by natural selection.

What is giving golf its current migraines, however, is not the loss of Palmer, the aging of Nicklaus or the paucity of stand-up fairway comeditans. The nightmare is that none of the game's budding talents seems able to define himself. Only greatness can make them game-enlibening attractions. None except perhaps Tom Watson, seems touched with elan.

It is Watson's sin that he is too thoughtful, too sensibly private to be glamorous.

"I'm in pursuit of excellence," he said this week. "No one except perphaps Byron Nelson (his tutor) has ever been able to hit every shot-high, low, draw, fade-off one basic swing in an upright plane. I believe it can be done."

That, unfortunately for TV ratings, is the way golfers think and talk. No sport is so totally immersed in theroy, jargon, quasi-science and amateur pyschology.

Baseball produced one Ted Williams, obessed with the abstract questons raised by the art hitting. Golf is awash in compulsive, adamant theoreticians with their slow-motion replays and multicolor sequence photos.

The great masses of fans like their heroes gaudy and accessible. Their taste should never be elitist. Their faults should draw a knowing wink.

This week Watson admitted the secret character witness that gnaws at him.

"I have a tendency to place the esthetics of shot-making ahead of scoring," Watson said, shamefaced as a monk who has been hiding fudge under his hair shirt.

Behind Watson are a horde of likable, interchangable, well-scrubbed faces all in search of the ideal swing plane, the perfect tempo, the ultimate positive-thinking attitude and a better cleat-tightener. If one of them sneezes before hitting a long tee shot, they'll all try it.

Trouble is, none of them can get a leg up on greatness.

Johny Miller lost the knack of shooting 61s before he ever really figured out or could articulate how he did it.

As soon as gentle Ben Crenshaw or cocky Lanny Wadkins makes a move for the top, he self-destructs in a blitz fo missed cuts. "I went the entire '78 season without having four consistent rounds in a row," said Crenshaw this week. "The word erratic is a stigma I carry around," said Wadkins. "I hate it."

Typical of the anonymous brigade is the current U.S. Open champion, old what's his-name, who is nearly as famous as the present PGA champ, that nice young blond oh, you-know-who.

Give up? So does Andy North. "I used to be mistaken for Jerry Heard," says the reigning Open champ. "Now i get mixed up a lot with Andy Bean. You know, we're both tall and have the same first name."

This is no laughing matter to the PAGA.

The aforementioned Andy Bean who gets mistaken for Andy North won $267,241 last year-third in the universe.

It gets worse. Gil Morgan won $267,459 last year and Commissioner Deane Beman probably couldn't pick him out of a police lineup. But then if Beman were on "What's My Line," he wouldn't have to wear a mask.

Anyone who can identify Bill Kratzert, Mark Hayes, Lon Hinkle, Tom Knite and Bruce Lietzke on the street wins a year's subscription to Golf Course Superintendent. Each won more than $100,000 last year and stood in the sport's top 20.

Golf pros have raised mistaken identity to an art form. If Lou Graham is not the least-known $100,000 athlete in sports then Mac McLendon is.

It is a fact of PGA life that the sporting public knows more about the 25 members of the New York Yankees than it does about the top 25 money-winners of the '78 season-i.e., who Howard Twitty? One baseball team is known in more depth than an entire major sport.

Chief among the inadvertent culprits responsible for this identity gap are players like Hubert Green, Hale Irwin, Miller Barker, Al Geiberger and Dave Stockton who have won a million dollars without leaving a mark in lore or breaking through to genuine stardom. Irwin is symptomatic of an entire breed-the check cashier. Last year he set a record he deserves: most money accumulated in a year without winning a tournament-$191,666. In a dozen season, Irwin has won one major championship.

Golf has so many pretty-boy princes and so few kings because they all get in each other's way. Confidence needs success in order to grow, and vice versa.

But when each tournament has only one winner, there isn't enough confidence togo around. Goals are lowered. Cashing checks, living the good, inconspicuous life looks better. Who really wants the aggravation of being king? Only Nicklaus.