"A smart fella once told me that a fine golfer only has one fine thing, and that's his fine golf - and that if he forgets it, he's a fool. Tom Watson never forgets ."

Byron Nelson, Golf Hall of Fame

The 79th U.S. Open may, by some historial progression or decree, be the week in which Tom Watson holds his official coronation as the new king of Golf.

And it is Watson's genial mentor, Byron Nelson, the home pro here at Inverness during his 1940s heyday, who appears ordained to bestow that crown of lasting greatness.

Ascension is in the air. This, the golf world murmurs, is the hour when the outwardly frecked but inwardly fierce Watson, with his deep voice and deeper drive, should move from his pleteau of wealthy excellence to his game's mountaintop.

Certainly, the time is ripe. Watson already has won $353,874 this year in barely half a season - 10 times as much as Jack Nicklaus and nearly twice as much as any other pro.

In fact, Watson, with four tour wins and four runner-up finishes in '79, could shatter the single-season PGA money winning record with a victory this week.

"Tom's the top star of this sport . . . period," Nelson said today, expressing the golf consensus. "And he has been since he beat Nicklaus head to head in the '77 Masters and British Open."

Nevertheless, Watson seems reluctant to take the last step forward. He had better hurry.

"I must win the U.S. Open to be considered one of the great players . . . Right now I certainly don't have the career of the names like Nicklaus, Hogan, Jones," Watson acknowledged today.

"Just winning money is not enough. In this game, you are measured by your major titles. And that's fair . . . I'm no different than anyone else. I want to be recognized as the best player in the world."

But with the next breath, Watson is determined to avoid the issue, the pressure, of the majors - perhaps even in his own mind.

"My only goal is to improve my golf swing. I have a lot to work on.Then everything else will take care of itself," said one of the most fanatic workaholics in a sport of drudges.

"I'm trying to limit my distractions and save some private time for myself and my family. Sometimes, it's impossible. Look where I am right now," said Watson, who was signing autographs, smile fixed on face, as he tried to nudge through a crowd before two TV crews could c*ut him off at the locker room door.

"One thing is of primary importance to me - my swing, my improvement as a golfer, my consistency," said the Stanford graduate in psychology. "I want to make this game easy.That one idea - improving my swing - is a simplifying principle. It eliminates a lot of clutter, a lot of false issues."

If golf, that sport of theorists, has one old priest who talks with more influence than any other, it is Nelson - often called the father of the modern swing.

And if the humbling game, the sport of flagellates, has one young monk who follows his ablutions and devotions with more diligence and intelligence than any other, it is Watson.

The two make a perfect athletic marriage - a pair of purists.

"Lots of people will pay attention to you, but they don't really listen ," said Nelson, whose swing was so ideal that when a machine was built to hit golf balls for research, it was designed on his swing mechanics - The Iron Byron.

"Tom listens better than anyone I ever saw. He'll look right at me, like this," said Nelson doing a touching imitation of Watson's devoted, almost beaglelike stare.

"Now my swing was shorter, firmer, slower and with more loose leg action than Tom's," Nelson said. "Mechanically, they're not that similar. But underneath, we're searching for the same thing - a consistent, repeating swing with a personal rhythm that doesn't change from takeaway to impact."

Ah, golf's Holy Grail - the perfect repeating, always dependable swing.

Old heads nod - even Nelson's - when a young buck sets off after that chimera of golf which has destroyed more players than whiskey and the yips combined.

"I used to worry about Tom," said Nelson. "I thought he was more critical of himself than anyone should be. You can't always hit it just the way you want. I was afraid he was too much of a perfectionist."

Could Watson derail his career by trying to acquire by labor what Nelson had been granted by nature.

"Tom's got such a brilliant mind that his intelligence always saves him," said Nelson. "He's able to keep some balance and not get down on himself when his swing deserts him a little.

"He always finds the flaw, because he's the most observant young man I know," said Nelson. "He was over to my house for dinner after not being there for awhile. We have some ancestral bone china that my wife loves, and since the last time Tom was there, I'd found a lady in Belgium who could make these dainty little place mats to match the pattern in the china.

"Tom walks right straight through the house to the kitchen, and as he passes the table he says, Hummm, place mats to match the china, and goes right on. I never saw my wife Louisa so impressed."

From week to week, Watson's meticulous method, his gift for catching his own creeping terros, serves him well. "If I continue to play well," he said, "it's just a matter of time until I win. It takes care of itself."

Like Nicklaus, Watson wants to be so persistently at the top, that winning is not a feat, but an inevitability.

Also like Nicklaus, few players are so utterly undisturbed by an anonymous second-place finish.

At the Tournament Players Championship, where he was runner-up, Watson simply said, "I'm making progress. Perhaps I'm sometimes a little distracted by the estehetics of trying to hit a beautiful shot, rather than a functional one."

But the U.S. Open, the Masters and the PGA will not take care of themselves. They dictate. They give the orders.

And Watson deeply resents it.

Subduing the Game

The notion that one tournament, one week, can have a special importance in a whole career is anathema to Watson's system of subduing the game by laborious, never-relenting practice.

"Of all the top players, Tom Watson is probably the most bothered by all the commotion that surrounds a major event," said pro Dave Stockton. "It's to his credit that he has learned to overcome it."

That is the generous point of view.

"There is no question that Tom is playing far better golf than anyone in the game," Nicklaus said after Watson won his Memorial tournament three weeks ago, "but . . ."

That eloquent "but" simply means Watson has not proved that he has the champion's knack of playing his best when the stakes are arbitrarily the highest - one of the cruel demands of his sport.

Watson, however, cannot change his method and never would consider it. His whole career has been a slow upward battle, not a gift of talent.

"By and large, your golf game mirrors your personality," said Lanny Wadkins, third on the money list and a longtime friend of Watson. "Tom's certainly does.

"We all approach things differently. Tom's methodical, organized, mechanical." Wadkins said the last word more softly so that Watson, sitting six feet away, would not hear it out of context and think he was being criticized as some sort of robot.

"What makes Tom different from the other great players is that he has no weaknesses. Even players like Nicklaus and (Arnold) Palmer were never more than adequate wedge and bunker players. They never had to be.

"Tom would never tolerate a weakness." Wadkins went on. "He'd go to the practice tee and beat at it till the darn thing went away."

Watson and Wadkins are almost perfect golf opposites of the same age.

Wadkins is a streaky "rhythm," or "touch," player with an unorthodox swing who trusts no one to give him advice.

"When my swing is in trouble," said Wadkins, "I go back and look at old films when I was hot. Tom would probably never do that.He's always pushing forward, trying to reach some new level, make some improvement. The idea of going back to recapture something would make him sick."

Wadkins, and his heroes - hot-and-cold touch players with unorthodox swings like Palmer or Lee Trevino - wait for their periods of inspiration when they play in the exalted way that they feel.

For them, the golf course is a place for adventure. "When I'm like that, golf has no strategy," said Wadkins. "I drill every shot at the pin. I wanna hole out from the fairway."

Not surprisingly, those players - suddenly scoring above the mundance, strutting the fairway with a special exhilaration - are called charismatic. They glow.

Watson always carries the sweat of the practice range with him. One can almost hear the clicking of the tumblers in his swing that looks like an agressive ever-repeating metronome.

"The range is my place," said Watson. "I practice after every round. Even if I'm leading by five shots."

Perhaps no one can understand Watson, respect him sufficiently or sense his limits until they have stood with the gallery on the practice tee, just arm's reach from his workshop. Home, home on the range, that's Watson.

"I'm not hitting it well at all," Watson grumbled after finishing his practice round Monday with a birdie. "I need a lot of work. That's the only way to make things too easy for pressure to bother you.

"I would like to come to this Open very confident . . . I took two weeks off just to practice, but my driving just got progressively worse. I'm not pleased. I can't force it to happen. I just have to let it fall in place," said Watson, as he trudged to do penance on the range.

The Nelson Approach

Pressure? Erosion under tension? Hardly. It is more likely that Watson, perhaps even subconsciously, is applying the Nelson approach.

"I told Tom a while back that if you're playing real super coming to the Open, it's hard not to be lackadaisical," Nelson related. "You need to be just a little bit off, but coming back, so that you have the things you need to work on fresh in your mind."

At Nicklaus' Muirfield course three weeks ago, Watson said he played "perhaps the best round of my life . . . a 69 in rain, wind and cold when the field average was 79."

His subsequently layoff slump hardly bothers him. "Sometimes it's good to come to the Open a little bit defensive . . .. "You can be too nonchalant if you come in expecting birdies."

So Watson beats hundreds of balls each day, hoping to turn that vital corner and find his swing in time for Thursday's starting gun.

Before each practice shot, Watson's lips purse in a winsome pucker of determination - he might still be 15 years old, the perfect dutiful school-boy.

Other players practice alone. Watson, never. Someone is always behind him, observing. Whether it is his caddie, just a passing pro, or, is the case of this week, his life-long home-town teacher from Kansas City - Stan Thirsk, Watson must have someone to whom he directs a little comment after almost every swing.

"Did I lay the club open a little at the top?" he said. "I'm a little ahead of that one, right?"

If the PGA tried to dream up - in a nightmare - the least useful type of player to be its showcase man, it would be the assiduous Watson: short on colorful personality, long on unseen character, and adamantly allergic to fame.

"I don't like to be on display," Watson said.

"Tom and I chitter-chatter about a lot of things," said Nelson. "The thing that concerns him most is probably all the outside disturbances that come with being a celebrity - press, commercials, fans.

"He knows he needs to pay full attention to golf. This game is like a horse . . . if you take your eye off it, it'll jump back and kick your shins for you.

"I think Tom has handled himself well. He smiles big and tips his hat. Who says you have to shout and jump up and down? In fact, to me, he's more exuberant than Jack. Even though he's as intent as (Ben) Hogan, he's a much freer and friendlier type person.

"But, no doubt, the hubbub affects Tom - maybe doesn't hurt him, but it affects him. I tell him that his focus of attention has to be elsewhere, that he has to do all these little duties of a star in a subconscious way. Nicklaus was the best ever at it."

Perhaps Nicklaus' greatest gift - over the long 17-major-title haul - was his ability to be the calm eye at the center of the constant Nicklaus hurricane. The man has presence, a memory for names, a common touch.

Watson must constantly work to create his own precariously maintained golfing calm - he battles for it in the solitude of that practice tee.

Hurricanes, like the one this week, crash at the walls of his monkish peace of mind.

The Storms Win

For years those storms defeated him. Watson led the 1974 and '75 Opens in the fourth round, as well as the 1975 Masters. He backed out of the lead all three times, earning a now-discarded reputation as a choker who was too smart for his own good.

Watson also has lost in playoffs in his last two major tournaments.At the Masters in April he had an agonizing half-dozen birdie putts slide past the hole, including three in sudden death, any one of which would have won a green coat.

Watson seemed stunned, almost disbelieving, that he could play the game properly, strike the ball better than his competitors, yet be betrayed by the mysteries of those 12-foot putts that can only be coaxed, never commanded.

As Watson always has insisted, "the biggest person I have to overcome is myself."

"It's not like the Nicklaus versus Palmer days anymore," said Watson.

"There is no rivalry like that now Maybe what we need is a big fist fight out there to make things more exciting."

Ironically, and perhaps significantly, the only major title that Watson has won in his own country came on the only occasion in which he abandoned his icy, precise style, admitting that he became fighting mad - at Nicklaus.

In the 1977 Masters, when Watson's choke reputation was at its peak, he and Nicklaus were in the thick of a final-day battle, with the Golden Bear playing in the group ahead of Watson.

After Nicklaus birdied the 13th hole, he appeared to pull the ball out of the cup and wave it at Watson as though saying, "Stick that in your ear, kid."

Nicklaus insisted he was waving at the crowd. Watson did not think so.

"I got very angry with Jack and then later I got hold of myself," Watson said that day. "I thought he had waved at me. But I was out of line and I apologized."

Watson was so angry he went nose to nose with Nicklaus in the scorer's tent after the round until Nicklaus' shocked expression showed Watson his mistakes.

If it is true that Watson the Purist needs a rush of emotion, an infusion of self-forgetfulness, in order to play his instinctive best under the greatest pressure, then Inverness may be the place for him.

This classic old course symbolizes Nelson and was his professional home during his greatest years.

"Aw, Tom gives me too much credit," said Nelson, "but that's just like him. "I've always cared for him. We've sort of got a father-son act, golfwise.

"You know, some fella asked me the other day if I was leading my second life through Tom. That kina made me hot.

"I said, 'No, thank you. I still have my first life going yet and it's still right full'," snorted Nelson.

But Nelson, 67, talks these days about how glad he is "to still be around" as he sees "all us older ones dying off."

If Tom Watson, the doughty Kansas City lad with the choirboy face and the mischievous Huck Finn smile, needs an extra lift to buoy him down Inverness' 72nd fairway, Byron Nelson will be walking the course to catch his eye.

"I know Byron has his favorites (sic) in this event," Watson said before going to dinner with the grand old man on Monday night.

"I'd sure like to make him happy." CAPTION: Picture, Tom Watson: "In this game, you are measured by your major tiles. And that's fair . . . I'm no different than anyone else." UPI