The hidden player and the hidden story of this 79th U.S. Open were Gary Player and his mysterious lost ball. Without an almost unheard-of stroke-and-distance penalty on Player on Friday, this Open might have had a playoff.

The little South African matched the best score of today's final round, 68, to clasp a tie for second place with Jerry Pate, two strokes behind Hale Irwin.

Second place was scarcely on Player's mind. In Friday's second round, Player hit his drive off the seventh tee into the rough, just a few yards off the fairway. Six officials were camped in the neighborhood of the ball's landing spot, but it never was found - so Player suffered the prescribed penalty for lost ball: a return to the tee, "hitting three."

He "parred" the 452-yard par-4 hole with his second ball, officially carding a double bogey 6.

"It's true, we almost never lose a ball in a major tournament," Player said today in the Inverness clubhouse, watching on television as Irwin staggered to his second U.S. Open triumph with a succession of wild shots on the final nine.

"There were five marshals and a USGA man within 15 yards of where the ball landed. We timed it, and in five minutes, we could not find anything.

"There's no use saying 'ifs.' Every man in this tournament can cry about what might have been.

"I's pure speculation, but you could certainly say that the finishing holes could have been different if I had been in the clubhouse at even par.

"However, I think just as much about the two-iron that I left out of my bag this week," said Player, who opted to carry a one-iron to use on Iverness' short driving holes.

"I had a double bogey and a bogey that I might not have made if I had had a two-iron when it was the proper club," Player said. "I blame myself for that."

As the 1965 U.S. Open winner so spoke, Irwin was in the process of taking double bogey on 17 and bogey on 18. Player's mouth became tight as he watched the screen.

Any second thoughts about the lost ball now that Irwin's lead over Player was not five shots but a harshly symbolic two?

"hmmmmmm," Player said with a wry smile. "Very interesting situation, but as I said, 'ifs' are not allowed in golf. Very bad form. Everything might have turned out differently."

To be sure. But Player's lost ball will be a conversation piece when the '79 Inverness Open is discussed.

"It was a weird situation," related the spectator whose watch was used by Player to time the serch. "Player seemed to hit quickly before the marshals were aware of him on the tee. No one ever saw his ball in flight or saw it land.

"Player walked to the officials and said, "It's right in here somewhere, men." But they had never seen it."

When Player made a hole in one at the 185-yard No. 3 on Saturday, the Inverness rumor was that the gods of golf were repaying the veteran his two strokes. His shot slammed into the stick on the first hop and instead of bouncing into the crowd, went straight down into the cup.

"I played well all week," Player said. "This is exactly my type of course with small greens and high rough.

I've been runner-up six times now in major championships and I'm quite proud of it . . . though Iventure few people know it. They only remember who wins."

They don't remember lost balls and what might have been. CAPTION: Picutre 1, Hale Irwin hugs his caddy, Joe Foy, after winning the U.S. Open for the second time in his golfing career. UPI; Picture 2, Bruce Lietzke blasts from a trap onto the sixth green in final round.