Tom Watson finally could relax. The worst had happened, one of the world's best golfers had blown sky-high in the U.S. Open - again. This time missing the cut.

For Watson, that tightly-wound but well-balanced ball of golf earnestness, it was a pleasant moment of revelation.

Like a balloon that had been pricked, Watson went limp. He laughed. He joked. He almost seemed to bask in the laid-back relief that accompanies the worst professional failures.

His game had taken its cruelest blow at him - public embarrassment - and he had survived it intact, unscathed.

"I shot a Red Grange today - 77," said Watson to his friend Hale Irwin, who had just fired a 68 for second place after two rounds. "Somebody should have shot me.

"The rumor is not true that I stepped on a safety pin," Watson said later. "But I did feel a little like (Spectacular) Bid out there. I was in the pasture all day."

Watson's banter after his opening 75 seemed strained, as though he were hoping a last-ditch change of mood might straighten out his renegade driver. But his self-deprecating wisecracks today seemed genuine - without ulterior motive.

"I was embarrassed out there. It's a really terrible feeling to play that bad. You know it's going to happen to you sometime, but you hate doing it. There's no explaining how bad it feels inside. But I'm not going to let it bother me.

"The game's got me in retreat right now, but better times are down the road."

Today's road, however, was the rockiest imaginable - including an opening triple bogey and a double bogey in a horrendous front-nine of 42.

Watson began the day grimly determined, certain that an under-par round would put him in the thick of the hunt of the one title that he craves above all others. Here on Inverness, the one-time home of his mentor, Byron Nelson, Watson would add the final culminating jewel to his golf crown.

So, at the 398-yard the first hole, the man who has won $353,074 in barely half a season, sliced his drive into the trees like a duffer, then had to chip back laterally to the fairway. He then babied an eight-iron shot, leaving it short of the green, chipped to 15 feet, and three-putted.

"There was a real gasp on the first hole," Watson, said "mainly from the guy who missed that last two-foot putt. That triple bogey was like a slap in the face . . . hard to come back from.

"There are no good words for how I played after that - sloppy, careless, poor judgment. There was no excuse for it. I looked like I needed a white cane.

"Anybody who saw some of my shots would have to laugh. After awhile I felt like I was playing those fantasy golf holes - you know, the posters where they have a tiny green hanging over the Grand Canyon. There's no question that this course will eat your lunch."

Actually, Watson needed streaks of spectacular scrambling to avoid 85. On that front-nine 42, he saved par three times by getting up and down with one putt. On the back, Watson actually had back-to-back birdies twice.

"The culmination of the day came at the 14th," said a rueful Watson. "I hit a rope-hook tee shot, then tried to saw the ball out of the rough with a wedge and left it under a tree. I finally got back to the fairway and had to hit a full wedge to six inches to save a bogey."

At that point, Watson looked like a wet, whipped whelp. Every kind heart in the gallery felt like saying, "Tom, just walk on off the course. You've been Player of the Year the last two years, and it'll be you again this year. Just chalk this one up."

Perhaps Tom Watson knew that he seldom looked more mature or more a champion than he did today, limping through the ankle-high pastures of Inverness with a safety pin in his swing and a grin on his gap-toothed face. CAPTION: Picture, Tom Watson, the favorite, missed cut in Open. UPI