This year's television ratings for the PGA tour are a shock; down almost one-third in just a year.

The press tent at the PGA Championship here is half-empty. Competent writers en masse have yawned and by-passed the No. 3 event of the U.S. golf year.

It would be nice to believe that media coverage of athletic events is merely incidental to the game itself.

Dream on. The folks with mikes and pens, prone to running in a pack, perhaps are supposed to follow public taste, not lead it.

But in sports like golf, which have a broad, but shallow, root system in the public mind, the media can have a powerful hand in determining the state of health - even the very life - of the game.

Television is the heartbeat of mass appeal. To a lesser degree, print people influence nationwide taste both directly - eye to printed page - and indirectly - because many in TV wouldn't know what to think if someone did not tell them.

That is why golf's nagging identity crisis, as Jack Nicklaus fades and the problems of media coverage by both TV and newspapers arise, comes up here. In an era of sports saturation, golf is not holding its own.

"I fear for the game of golf," says Terry Jastrow, a director for ABC, the network televising the PGA. "Golf on TV, if it is done as poorly as it is now being done by the other two networks, can seriously damage the game. Our skirts aren't clean at ABC, either."

"I've never seen such a sorry cast of writers at a major event," said Billy Reed, columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal. "Most of 'em wouldn't know a story if it bit 'em, much less dig one up."

Seldom has a sport so needed an industrious press - even a controversial, prying, nosy press - as golf does now.Anything that can juice up this game of closet crazies is a bonus because Nicklaus looks like a man who cannot carry his sport on his back any longer.

"This will be my last tournament of the year. Even if I win, I will not go to the World Series of Golf," said Nicklaus, before the PGA began, although he reserved the right to change his mind "if I get tired of watching my sons play football, which is unlikely."

Nicklaus, once again, was a portrait of misery today as he became so disconsolate - going double-bogey, bogey, bogey through the crucial eighth-ninth-10th hole Oakland Hills turn - that he was too blue even to acknowledge the ovations of his gallery.

For the first time since 1962, Nicklaus will neither win a tournament nor finish in the top four money winners. He currently is 50th in money winnings and could drop out of the top 60 by season's end.

"Jack has lost his touch," said Fuzzy Zoeller this week. "He can't find a reason to get worked up and play. How can you blame him?

Golf's growth was directly connected to those TV cameras that loved to follow Arnold Palmer, then later the trio of Palmer, Gary Player and the young Nicklaus, and finally Nicklaus versus a series of challengers for the game's top spot. It was a nice on-going story. Tune in next week.

Now, unless you care deeply about the pronation of the wrists of Larry Nelson - the tour's No. 2 money winner, who is programmed on every shot by his daddy dy - it is tough to work up a passion.

It shouldn't be. The tour is fascinating up close. But who is up close? Only TV - up close and impersonal.

"Visually, the game is being well done by ABC," said Jastrow."We've made innovations - roving reporters on the course, cameras that follow the ball in flight, and especially the hand-held cameras directly behind the golfer which show the lie, the target, the obstacles to the shot, an the plane of the golfer's swing. From behind is the only way to look at a golf swing, although we're the only ones who do it.

"CBS hasn't essentially changed its static approach to the "look" of the game in 15 years. And NBC is just third-rate in all respects. Basically, they just don't know what they're doing and everybody knows it.

"Where all three networks drop the ball, to one degree or another, is in capturing the humanity of the game. Everyone cries that there are no more Palmers or (Lee) Trevinos coming along. But we don't go out and develop what we have.

"Tom Watson doesn't wear purple shoes, but he'll talk about psychology, emotion and quote poetry. He's just a bird of a different color.

"Golf is more than the sum of its shots, although you'd never know it by looking at CBS and NBC. It's emotions, fears, traditions, tendencies, the flow of play."

Jastrow, of course, is annoyed because ABC was outbid this year by the other networks for the contract to do regular weekly tour events - the very events whose rating are so drastically down. CBS still does the Masters, excellently, while ABC does the other majors. CBS and NBC split the rest, and will do so again in 1980.

"The cost of the rights to the regular tour events was almost tripled this year," said Jastrow. "ABC just said that we only have so much money for golf, if we spend it all on rights, then we don't have enought left to cover it properly, so forget it. We'll do it right, or not t at all."

Some worry that the PGA hierarchy, by squeezing the last dollar out of its TV contract, also squeezed out the one network that did the best job of presenting a sport that desperately needs imaginative presentation to keep it from being a total bore. Shortsighted?

"I know this seems like sour grapes," said Jastrow, a golfer at the high-powered University of Houston and teammate there of John Mahaffey. "But look at the other side - why should I care if the other networks do a bad job? The reason is because it damages a game I love.

"The instant a tournament becomes uneventful, it becomes dull. That shouldn't be. Where are the personality profiles, the insert talking head shots in the corner of the screen, the humor?

"A dramatic shot-for-shot tournament carries itself. But what happens when you need some gravy to make it all palatable?"

ABC is far from guiltless. The most fascinating character in this PGA has seen Rex Caldwell, the nonstop iconociastic talker whose slang-filled conversation should come with subtitles. In its first half-hour show on Friday night, with Caldwell in second place, ABC had not one word from a man who has been talking constantly for two days.

"I think we have a self-imposed rigidity in our whole approach to golf," admitted Jastrow. "We know that the godfathers of the game, the men in the blazers, want to keep it an elitist country-club y-club game.

"They'll send us a note mentioning that "a bunker is a bunker is a bunker...it is improper to call it a sand trap or the beach,"" Jastrow said with a laugh. "We have two commentators - Dave Marr and Peter Alliss, who can lay down a line of clubbhouse jive and slang that's seven two-irons wide. They're hilarious at a bar.But I'll admit that it doesn't get on the air. We tend to muzzle ourselves."

Golf also needs to understand, at its highest levels, that its era of stuffiness needs to end.