As though answering a question for the golf history books, the orneriest course in creation -- Sawgrass -- played its absolute easiest today.

For the past three years, 432 pros have teed up in the rich Tournament Players Championship here and only one -- Lanny Wadkins last year -- could break par for 72 holes.

Day after day the pros muttered, "I wonder what we'd do to this course if the wind ever stopped blowing and the greens got soft and slow."

Since the TPC moves across the street here next year to the grandiose new Players Club, this was Sawgrass' last chance to offer an answer about her sweeter nature.

Today, at least for the half of the field that teed off early, Sawgrass was, in Jack Nicklaus words, "a piece of cake . . . as easy as anybody will ever find it."

By day's end, 22 players had shot in the 60s -- lead by Hale irwin and Steve Melnyk with 67 -- while 32 other greedy golfers had broken par on the 7,000-yard bogey factory.

Seldom has the cream risen so conspicuously in the first round of a prominent event. The TPC boasts a field that rivals the U.S. Open as the strongest of the season. So it was no surprise to see Lee Trevino in a group of 10 players at 68, or to find Nicklaus and Tom Watson among 10 more at 69.

In fact, almost the only well-known names who were over par were Ray Floyd and Tom Weiskopf at 73 and Johnny Miller at 76.

"I had an easy round," said a surprised Melnyk, who resembles Jackie Gleason's character The Lost Soul."I know that sounds strange from somebody who just played Sawgrass."

"I didn't make a birdie putt of more than eight feet, and I played Sawgrass without a bogey," said Melnyk as if the words tasted strange in his mouth. "Normally, I'm not too crazy about this course. If I had a chance to play golf on an off day, I sure wouldn't play Sawgrass.

"But I gotta admit, it was fun today."

Until noon, flags hung limp without a breath of wind. The ground was soft, but not soggy, from overnight rain. And the course, notably the four par-3 holes, had been shortened a total of 81 yards since last year out of a sense of mercy.

Conditions were so kind that Nicklaus was plainly aggravated with his 69. "I didn't come close to a bogey, and I could have shot quite a score," said Nicklaus, who is still pumped up after his second-place finish at Doral, but who missed seven birdie putts of 12 feet or less today.

"Don't worry about that wind," warned Trevino. "it's out there, just waiting for us."

Last year's opening round was a miniversion of today's -- a 66 and three 67s lit up the leaderboard. But that day only 18 players broke par. Today, 54 shattered par, tripling the old record.

But Sawgrass did show a few of her teeth to the half of the field of 144 that played in the afternoon. Though breezes were only 15 mph, it made a large difference. Of the dozen leaders, only two played in the afternoon. And of the 44 players at 70 or lower, 29 played in the morning.

"The fellows this morning got a helluva break," said Irwin, who was as delighted with his "hard" 67 as Melnyk was nonplused by the ease of his five-under par round.

As might be expected, the day's bubbliest contender was Trevino, who got a tip from J. C. Snead the evening before that turned his slightly sour game around.

"J. C. was takin' a walk with his little boy saw me beatin' balls," said Trevino. "I haven't hardly hit a decent shot all year. I'm just puttin' and scrambling. J. C. saw I was setin' up to the ball too open.

"He moved my right foot back and I knew from the first practice ball I hit that I had it back. I hit the ball as well as I can hit it today," said Trevino.

"I been playing so bad that I been cheatin' on my diet and drinkin' a six-pack of beer every night," said Trevino, who has dropped from 192 at Christmas ("I was playin' Santa with-out the padding") to 173 two weeks ago ("too skinny for a Mex"). Now he's back up to 180, and "If I keep hittin' it this good, I got to cut out the beer and get serious."

Almost as chipper was Irwin, who has resharpened his game after what he calls his worst start in the last 10 years.

"I find it harder each year to come back out and care," said Irwin, 34. "It's easier to go home and harder to leave. You tell yourself, 'Hey, I'm getting off this merry-go-round for a while."

One of the tour's more drastic rubs of the green is the frequent, and inevitable, disparity between morning and afternoon tee times during the first two days of play.

"You wish there were a way for everybody to have the same conditions," said Watson, whose afternoon 69 was bettered only by Irwin and Danny Edwards (68). "You just hope all the luck evens out."

One player who won't tee off here in either the a.m. or p.m. group is Arnold Palmer. His name is being mentioned as much as almost anyone on the leaderboard.

Palmer wanted to play here and said so. But he wasn't invited because he didn't meet the rigorous qualification standards which are the TPC's primary claim to distinction. That has never happened to Palmer before. Mr. Golf is usually begged to play in any tournament for his gate appeal and his past contributions.

The pros here are nicely split on the issue of Arnie's absence. "Palmer should be in any tournament he wants to be in," said Bill Kratzert. "Unbelievable," said Gary Player (70). "If the U.S. Open and PGA can have exemptions, certainly the TPC can."

"Unfortunately, Mr. Palmer didn't qualify," said Bob Murphy. "When Mr. Palmer isn't eligible, he doesn't play."

If the wind machine here starts to blow, as it did last year -- getting more brutal with each round until it reached a Sunday gale -- plenty of people may wish they were off with Palmer, who was at a golf-course opening in Prince George's County, Md.

Just ask the acerbic Mr. Murphy. In last year's final round, he shot 92 and finished last.