Tom Watson is, right now, the best golfer in the world, and the same could have been said of him last year and the year before. But it rarely was except by his fellow pros, his best witnesses. They were the ones who had to contest him on the tour each week.

Less aware of Watson's fine art with a set of golf clubs has been golf's great body of fans from whom he has been getting slow acceptance. Sure, they've been hearing the name pop up more and more as he knocks off the latest tournament, but there has been no great tumult of acclaim for him.

In search of an explanation of why, in his case, the fans still are playing catch-up in the recognition game, Watson could be tempted to use his degree in psychology from Stanford. Except in his native Kansas City, there are no organized huzzahs about him, none of the furor that was generated by Palmer, Nicklaus and Trevino when they were playing Watson's kind of golf.

There is no Tom Watson cult, but properly there should be. No player of these recent times owns a record to compare with his. He now is the automatic favorite anytime he tees up in a tour tournament. Already in his collection this year are the San Diego, Los Angeles and New Orleans opens, the Tournament of Champions and the Byron Nelson.

The last victory, in Dallas Sunday, was his third straight and he came away from it saying, "Just four more rounds. I'm looking ahead now to that $200,000 bonus."

That's what sponsors of the Nelson and this week's Colonial in Fort Worth, Tex., put up for any golfer who could win them both. Watson already has amassed $300,515 this year; in 1979, when he set the tour record of $462,236, he was breaking his own mark, set the year before.

Yet it is safe to say that a name that more readily comes to mind as a tour figure is that of Lee Trevino, despite his string of second-place finishes. The competent Trevino with his Chicago charm, cuts a more dashing figure than the quite, workman-like Watson, whose play to the gallery is mostly limited to polite acknowledgement. w

Jack Nicklaus, when he is playing, is a bigger gallery favorite than Watson at the outset. In these older years, Nicklaus still resides in the residue of awe he used to command with that deft short play appended to his booming long game. And Arnold Palmer, whose legacy to American golf was a generation of knock-kneed putters aping his style, can even now be more of a gallery favorite than Watson at any slight hint that Palmer is making a charge.

It is his fellow pros who give Watson his due. They know that when they hand out those first prize checks in the awards ceremonies that those numbers for $45,000, $50,000 and $54,000 are not going to Watson just because he's a nice looking, still-boyish chap at 30, who has those freckles and sometimes has been called a grownup Huck Finn.

The Plaudits for Watson were unrestrained last year when he won the prestigious Memorial tournament at Columbus, Ohio, on the Muirfield course architected by Nicklaus as a test of golf.

"Greatest round of golf ever played," it was said by one of his fellow pros, and agreed to by others. They were talking of the 69 he scored in cold, rain and wind on a day when the average score in the field was 79. He was three under par with no bogeys. Watson said, simply, "I think that was my best round."

Watson brings some excellent equipment to the tour, including a swing that is one of the best. At 5-feet-9 and 160 pounds, he is one of the smaller pros, but he is compact. "He hits the ball as far as he likes," Byron Nelson, his mentor, once said of Watson. When he strikes a bad shot, that's it. No grimaced "damn" like Arnie Palmer, with his hitching of the trousers. Watson goes to the next shot without emotion.

His game suits all conditions. He is one of the tour's best out of a trap, and often is deadly on the greens, as all big winners must be. On the last 18 of this year's New Orleans Open victory, he had nine one-putt greens with those nine putts totaling 184 feet. "I sank everything I looked at," Watson said.

Ironically, the world's best golfer of the last three years had to live down a reputation as a choker. The nasty word was heard when Watson blew leads in the 1974 U.S. Open and 1975 Masters. When he folded again, in the 1975 Open, that reputation was almost graven.

But two years later never was a choke label expunged more completely. He took on Nicklaus head to head in the '77 Masters, went out in 32, and broke the tie with Nicklaus with a 20-foot putt on 17. In that year's British Open, when Nicklaus threw a 66 at him in the last round. Watson threw a 65 at Nicklaus and won it.

It was in that year that Watson gave notice of his modesty. "I hoped to win more tournaments," he said, "But I hope also to be a good human being." He also gave evidence of his scholarly background when he said. "I would like very much to have the respect of my peers, in a constant progression."

He learned in his first four years that the tour was tough when he could win only two tournaments. It was a period when mostly he had a gallery of one, the former Linda Rubin, former schoolmate who now is his wife.

There are other robust emoluments. He now commands healthy fees for endorsing shoes, clothes and Armstrong tires. He also is seen in those "E. F. Hutton is my broker," ads. Arranging these affairs for him is his manager-brother-in-law, Charles Rubin of Kansas City, who has known Watson longer than has his sister.

Watson is big in Tokyo. Those Japanese TV and radio sets that are popular in America are a Tom Watson advertising account. Japanese golfers, who follow the American tour standings closely, play the Dunlop balls that bear Tom Watson's endorsement there. Here, he gives his name to the Ram golf equipment. Well, he doesn't actually give it. There's a price.