David Graham fought for his golfing soul in the PGA Championwhip and won - just barely.

The Australian veteran, who looks weathered, perpetually tired and a decade older than his actual 33 years, won his first major title on an excruciatingly tense afternoon when he played the best golf of his life, the worst - and in the end perhaps the most unconscious.

When Graham sank an eight-foot birdie putt on the third hole in a sudden-death playoff with Ben Crenshaw to win this 61st PGA, it was almost anticlimactic compared to the five hours of television that preceded it.

Few golfers have committed a sin against themselves as grievous as the double bogey that Graham made at the 72nd hole to force the playoff when he needed only a humble and cautious bogey to grab the $60,000 prize and priceless prestige.

And even fewer golfers have redeemed themselves as splendidly as Graham did by sinking do-or-die puts of 15 and eight feet on the first two playoff holes after Crenshaw's ball was already in the hole or practically hanging on the lip.

Graham might have been haunted forever by the way he played the 18th hole - destroying the memory of the round of his life that would have been a seven-under-par 63 over Oakland Hills had he simply managed a closing par.

Instead, Graham drove wildly right, whacked an iron over the green, chili-dipped a chip shot from the fringe, hit another chip four feet past the hole, then, finally, lipped out that merciless four-foot putt and took a 6.

"Just as I took the club back on the 18th hole on the tee, I suddenly woke up to what was happening - it just hit me," said Graham.

What hit him was a series of incredible facts. If he just made a closing par, he would break the PGA 72-hole record of 271 and also tie the 18-hole record of 63.

Instead, with his double bogey, Graham finished with a 65 that tied the Oakland Hills course record. His 72-hole total of 272 broke the course record by nine shots and was the second-lowest PGA score ever.

His 69-68-70-65 merely tied him with Crenshaw's 69-67-69-67 week of work, putting them two shots ahead of Rex Caldwell, the third-round leader who finished with an creditable 71 today.

By the time Graham reached the first playoff hole - No. 1 at the Hills - he was almost totally disconsolate. "I walked off the 18th thinking, "Good God, what the hell is going on here?"" said Graham. "I'd never had an experience like that in my life. I was practically in a daze for the entire hole."

As Graham stood at that first playoff hole, he saw a marshal who was an old friend and said to him, "Whenever I have to make the right decision, I make the wrong one. That's the story of my life."

Graham could have been talking about choosing to use a driver off the 72nd tee. Or about overclubbing himself on his second shot. Or about shooting for the pin instead of playing safe with his first chip. Or even about reading his final four-foot putt too far outside the hole. Or all four.

Little did he know how he was to distinguish himself soon.

At the first playoff hole, both men drove wildly - Crenshaw right and Graham left, as though the two stellar players who had never won a major tournament were anxious to give the title to the other.

Crenshaw recovered, wedging over a tree to the front edge on the 444-yard par-4, then hitting a spendid lag putt for a tap-in par.

After Graham's miserable second shot from a mound in the rough stayed 25 yards short of the green, Crenshaw later admitted, "I thought, "I've finally won it." I felt like I had it...I don't like second place. This is my fourth second in my last six starts and I'm sick of it."

When Graham, after a mediocre pitch-and-run, made his saving downhill putt - dead in the heart of the hole - the Aussie thought to himself, "Maybe these people will think I've got some guts after all. Damn it, David, all is not lost."

Again at the second hole, a 521-yard par 5, Crenshaw smoked two gorgeous woods to the fringe within 15 feet of the hole to threaten an eagle. Graham's three-wood second shot was only saved from deep trash by the crowd behind the green. Again, Crenshaw thought he had money and fame in the bank.

Crenshaw watched Graham chip to eight feet, barely missed his eagle putt, then watched in disbelief as Graham saved himself again - frontdoor style.

Actually, when Graham's miracle downhill snake found the cup at the first playoff hole, Crenshaw broke into one of the most genuine smiles that could be imaged on a man who has just had a PGA title snatched from him.

Finally, at the tough 202-yard third hole, Graham had his vindication. Crenshaw put his four-iron shot in the right trap, leaving an opening.

As Graham prepared to hit, a teenager fell out of a tree, a baby cried and finally an ABC-TC crane let out an incredible diesel roar not 20 feet from Graham. "Turn that thing off," bellowed a marshal.

Instead of creating tension, the electricity in the evening air was broken. There was no choice but to laugh.

"It's just like a bloody football game out here...the Miami Dophins playing in New York," said Graham, stepping away with a wry grin.

"It's somethin" out here," said Crenshaw, who heard the crowd chanting "Ben, Ben, Ben," as he approached holes, and heard countless exhortations of the "Take that 60 grand back to Austin" type.

Graham drilled a four-iron - "my second-best shot of the day" - just eight feet from the hole. The rest was formality. Crenshaw's tough blast shot went 22 feet past the hole. His comeback putt burned the edge. Graham's final eight-footer was pressureless. He nailed it in the center.

Graham's performance was appreciated by an unseen man - Washington's Lee Elder - who became the first black ever to qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup team by virtue of Graham's playoff victory. Had Crenshaw won, he would have bumped Elder off the 12th and last spot on the Ryder team.

"There's no question who I'm rooting for," Elder said with a laugh as he watched the concluding dramatic holes.

Graham's victory capped a day of marvelous lead changes, low scores and constant action that had the crowd of 35,000 spinning its collective head - hardly knowing in which direction to turn.

The Australian decisively parted scoring company with the better-known players with whom he started the day tied for third - Jerry Pate and first-found leader, top money-winner Tom Watson. Pate shot 71, losing by six, while Watson closed with a 74 and the ignominy of a triple bogey on No. 11, where it took him three shots to get out of a fairway bunker.

Caldwell started the day with a twoshot lead, fell to second after Crenshaw opened the day with three straight birdies, then took the lead back by the seventh hole. Graham made his moves in birdie bursts of two. He birdied No. 1 and No. 2 to move from four shots back at the start of the day to the edge of contention. Another pair of birds at the seventh and eighth suddenly put him in the thick of contention.

Yet another pair of disappearing birdie putts at the 10th and 11th put him in the lead by a shot. When Graham smashed a 188-yard four-iron at the 15th hole in within three inches of the hole - "my best" - he had a two-shot lead. When he bravely saved par with a 10-foot put at the 17th, he seemed to be home free. That was before he woke up at the 18th.

Naturally, it was one last birdie-birdie salvo that ended Graham's day after he had saved that crucial par at the first playoff hole. CAPTION: Picture 1, David Graham is embraced by his caddy, Willie Peterson, after defeating Ben Crenshaw in playoff. UPI