The American passion for statistics and exact knowledge finally has locked horns with that ancient Scottish mixture of torture and mystery called golf.

Some might say that a pestilential pastime invented by the devil and a perfidious science have, at last, joined battle.

What branch of learning has elicited more curses than the field of "lies, damned lies and statistics"? What game has produced more oaths than golf?

What wonderful treachery will be produced when the former is applied to the latter?

Now, thanks to the PGA tour, the Oldest Member, should he wish to know, can discover which pro golfer hits the ball the farthest. And, which player hits the most fairways and greens in regulation, as well as which takes the fewest putts and makes the most birdies.

It is with piquant expectation that golfers have awaited the results of this invocation of a dubious empiricism to iluminate an utterly unfathomable sport.

American sports have all lent themselves, to one degree or another, to statistical analyses of almost actuarial dryness.

Golfers, who have spent years curling their lips at mention of the "hang time" of punts or the fielding averages of shortstops, have gleefully anticipated the crash when statistics came to grief on the rocky shores of their game.

"Only one number matters -- the number of strokes," say the sages. "You don't need a computer, just your fingers."

After the first month of the PGA season, golf's new statistics have produced plenty of grist for scoffing humor.

The longest driver the Mike Peck (274.5 yards) and the most accurate Mike Brannan (87.1 percent in the fairway). The best putter has been Paul Purtzer (26 per round) and the man with the second-highest percentage of holes under par has been Mike Sullivan (24.2)

If these gentlemen seem little-known, it is because they are. More pointedly, they are not the men who have the most money or the championship trophies from the year's frist four events.

Those better-known fellow, including Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Craig Stadler and George Burns, do not rank spectacularly high in the newly unveiled figures.

Nevertheless, surprising as it may seem, this is not the time to laugh at the PGA's computer printouts.

As yet, the statistical samplings on any one golfer are probably too small to draw any sensible conclusions. For instance, the fellow who has hit the most greens in regulation in any tournament -- Lou Graham (88.9 percent) in the five-round Bob Hop Classic -- failed to make the cut for the last round.

However, four tournaments is plenty to begin to draw a composite statistical picture of the typical pro golfer. It is a surprise, and even instructive, portrait.

"I suspect that the general public has tended to think of pro golfers as players who drove the ball 300 yards, seldom missed a fairway or gren, and who won or lost on the basis of how many of their birdie putts they happened to sink that particular week," said Labron Harris, the man who devised and implements the new system. "That's far from the statistical profile we're getting."

Actually, the mean average among all pros for greens hit in regulation is a paltry 63 percent -- or between 11 and 12 greens per round. The percentage of fairways hit is only slightly better, 65.2.

In other words, the pros spend far more time in trouble than is normally thought, and play a tee-to-green game much more familiar to the average hacker than those duffers would assume.

Even a composite profile of the four winners so far indicates that all have driven the ball between 247 and 262 yards (on average), have hit between 57 and 65 percent of the fairways and 69 to 77 percent of greens.

Once again, these figures indicate a shorter and more erratic brand of golf than is generally assumed, despite the fact that the pros haven't hit the monster course yet.

On the other hand, once the pros approach the green, they play a game with which few amateurs are familiar. "Our players may not be as near-perfect as some might think," said Harris, "but their knack for scoring is probably far better than most people would ever suspect."

As a group, the PGA pros are the players who best understand golf's most central and far-reaching cliche: "It's not how. It's how many."

The mean average of putts per round on the tour is 29.8. Ninety-eight pros average under 30 putts and 170 out of 217 are under 31. Swallow hard on that one, gang. Plenty of golfers never have a round of fewer than 30 putts in their life.

"That putting figure reflects the total quality of the pros' short game," said Harris. "It means that when they miss a green, they can get up and down in one putt from some terrible places. It's a measure of chipping, pitching and sand play as well as putting."

Watson has pointed out that "the players who have the putting stats aren't necessarily the best putters. The more greens you miss, the more makeable one-putt opportunities you will probably have."

Nevertheless, the lesson in the new statistic is clear. The average golfer assumes that the difference between his ability and that of a pro becomes less the closer he comes to the "easy" touch shots around the green.

And that is exactly backwards.

"A pro knows that you can miss eight greens and still shoot 65," said Harris. "The amateur can't comprehend how he does it.

"The pros hit fewer greens than expected, but they make more birdies -- between 20 and 25 percent for the leaders," said Harris. "That's extraordinarily high. It shows that they know how to go for the stick, get the ball close and then bear down and capitalize on the birdie putts that they do have."

For legions of golfers -- who spend their lives crushing balls at the driving range and taking one more set of lessons to get a "new swing" -- the wisdom of the links comes too late: Golf and scoring are two different games. w

The pros understand what this season's new stats are already showing. The best pro will, by year's end, miss more than 20 percent of all fairways and greens, while many a decent pro will be out of the fairway and off the green almost as often as he is "down the watering system."

"On the tour, almost everybody knows which side of the green or fairway has less trouble. So, they know in which direction to miss," said former tour winner Harris, who has a masters in statistics from Oklahoma State.

Or, as Sam Snead put it, golf is primarily a game of avoiding or minimizing bad shots.

The pro golf world's new toy shows that the statistical thread that runs through the tour is a mixture of savvy, poise in trouble and infinite attention to the short game.

Fortunately, however, the new math can only point at the old wisdom, without making it any easier to attain.

"When Ben Hogan won the British Open at Carnoustie," recalled Harris, "there was one hole where he deliberately drove into the middle of the rough all four days. He understood that he had a better angle of approach to the pin from there than any place in the fairway.

"I don't believe," said Harris, "that our computer will ever be able to take that into account."