Nothing in American sports is even vaguely like the life on the pro golf tour.

To get a sense of the loose-knit gypsy caravan that will be stopping at Congressional Country Club this week for the $400,000 Kemper Open, we must look largely outside athletics for our analogies.

The Tour is like a traveling repertory company that puts on basically the same show in 40 towns a year, but with a different ending each week.

The cast of characters is familiar -- the same leading men retaining their luster for many years with predictable foils around them. The best players have the presence and panache of actors. Other athletes sweat or sprawl in the dirt. Golfers never have a hair out of place, seldom crinkle a cardigan. They seem coiffed by PGA central casting.

No other major sport allows its audience so close -- frequently arm's reach -- during play. The first row behind the gallery ropes has the same footlight excitement as the best seat in the live theater.

The Tour, however, does not have, nor want, the solemn dignity of the theater. It also has something of the scatterdash quality of circus.

The striped tents go up and the huge scoreboards. A familiar golf course suddenly has something of the splash and festival quality of a medieval joust. We half expect clowns and jugglers to lead Watson and Player to the ceremonial first-tee introduction, rather than caddies and a half-dozen brightly uniformed scorekeepers and officials.

The milling crowds, munching and preening, prosperous and relaxed, seeing and being seen, hiking or lounging like picnickers, also lend a sea-of-humanity aura, as though a carnival fairground with hot dog stands and vendors had suddenly been moved to the middle of a landscaped woodland park.

As we wander through this welter, Lee Trevino or Arnold Palmer is apt to appear suddenly, face to face, saying, "Excuse me, folks, I have to get to the practice tee."

No sport in this country has such a similar look and feel, week to week, as the golf tour. Not only the players, but the supporting troops of officials, directors of this and that, publicists, agronomists, secretaries and even the chap who draws the cute cartoons on the leader boards, travel the circuit and reappear everywhere.

To those who have only seen the Tour on TV, everything seems strange and new. Each week, throngs gather behind the driving range to gasp and nudge each other at these prodigies who make a one-iron disappear at synapse speed. Every player looks vastly different -- Andy Bean or Bruce Lietzke far larger than expected, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson much smaller.

Yet for those who have watched this week of ritual at a dozen different venues, there is an almost haunting sameness, a disconcerting sense that an entire encapsulated community has transported itself ("Beam us down to the Greater Greensboro, Scotty") to a new location without ever knowing how it got there or what surrounds it outside the social out-of-bounds markers that delimit the country club universe.

Tennis might offer a mild comparison, but there the sites, within a month, might change from Rome to Paris to London, while, in the last month, the PGA Tour ventured from Houston to Dallas to Fort Worth.

If, on the international tennis tour, the courts seem the least-interesting spot in town to linger after a match, on the American golf tour the 19th hole may seem the most glamorous spot in Tallahassee, Tucson or Hartford.

For a typical pro, who spends most of his life (perhaps 30 weeks a year) on tour, the potential for a comfortable insularity is great.

The Tour is such a self-contained, first-name world, with its own castes and cliques, manners and mores, that one wire service golf reporter and his wife essentially have no permanent address, but might as well list their residence as The Tour, Somewhere, U.S.A.

The players fly in the same planes, some with their whole families in tow. They stay in the same motels or in the same sort of rented houses near the golf course.

The first order of business in each new town is to get a map that shows the airport, the course, the motel and a good restaurant. There won't be time for much else. For those who don't like maps, courtesy cars link these four vital locations so that a player, hypothetically, never need know where he had been, where he is, or where he is going.

Every player knows the danger of this possible stultification. The first resolution of most players who reach stardom, from Jack Nicklaus on down, is to spend less time on tour.

When on tour, however, the ritual is similar for almost every player.

They practice together, constantly critiquing each other and making side bets. They brunch together on the verandas of dozens of country clubs over-looking dozens of practice putting greens. Sometimes, they and their families eat dinner together. They even chitchat together in the same playing groups, making small talk for five hours at a time.

Since golfing careers are so much longer, as a rule, than those in contact sports, the PGA perennials know each other better than the teammates on most pro baseball or football teams ever will. No detail or quirk is beneath observation. Mimicry of gesture, speech or playing pattern is an art. b

"Thirty-six," said Dave Stockton to J. C. Snead in the locker room at Augusta National last month as both changed their spikes, each casually glancing at a TV monitor of the play in progress at that moment.

"Incredible," said Snead. "His record is 59 in a sand trap in Houston."

What are they talking about?

"Oh," said Stockton to a stranger, "Hubert Green just fidgeted 36 times, sneaking a peak at the flag, as he addressed a shot. Hubie's the king of the peekers. Someday he's going to be wiggling and waggling, turning his head fifty times as he gets ready to pull the trigger, and he's not going to be able to hit it. He's just going to keep on turning that head until if falls off, or until they send somebody out to bring him in."

"The worst I ever saw . . . must be the all-time record . . . was 71 waggles by that guy Gilbert from Richmond," said Snead. "If he'd backed off and started over, I'd have killed him with my wedge."

Baseball players are masters of imitating each other's swings and habits. But they can't touch golfers, whose whole sport is keyed to the ability to analyze and dissect the most minute and nearly-invisible component parts of a golf swing.

Many a PGA pro can duplicate Arnold Palmer's slashing swing. But Ed Snead can go one better -- he can do it backwards, from the finish back to the address, at full speed. He can also duplicate an entire Gary Player press conference, with the wee South African apparently the soul of modesty, yet promoting himself constantly.

This tour life is a charged and schizophrenic atmosphere -- part comradeship and old-fashioned honor, and part gamesmanship and desperately serious competition.

Far from being teammates, these men, who know each other better than they know anyone else in the world except their families and a few close friends, are adversaries in what may be the most brutally winnowing of all our games.

Last year, 35 golfers won $100,000 or more. They, and a couple of dozen others, live the good life of steak for breakfast, Titleists for practice balls, endorsements on the side, and never a worry about not going first class. b

The cutoff for the 100th man on the money list was $38,393 in '79, which sounds good, but isn't very. After expenses, which are incessant and high, that 100th man has the standard of living, and the cost-consciousness, of a school teacher or policeman.

By contrast, the 100th best major league baseball player would be in line for a multiyear contract of a million dollars or more.

Beneath golf's top 100 are, roughly speaking, another 100 competent but marginal players who, if they are sensible, must ask themselves periodically if they are wasting their lives.

And beneath those are another 100 -- all of whom earned less than $3,700 last year -- who might be better off with a job.

Faced with these economic realities, one might expect the Tour to be an ugly Darwinian jungle of oneupsmanship. In fact, it is the opposite.

The golf tour is probably the most sporting, the most honorable, the most open to the sharing of knowledge of all games.

Pro golfers have many common enemies: travel, boredom, pressure that frays the nerves and spirit, and, above all else, the fickleness of the golf swing itself and the built-in capriciousness of the game.

In short, everything this is meant by "the rub of the green" -- both in sport and in life -- binds those on tour into something of a fraternity. Not a chummy fraternity, perhaps, but one which is more than civil.

If golf is the least demanding game physically, then it may be the most tormenting emotionally. Long gone is the mutual suspiciousness that moved Gene Sarazen 50 years ago to carry his new discovery -- the sand wedge -- under his coat for a year so that no other player would grasp its design. Now, if anything, the pro golfers comprise such a wide-open laboratory -- like dozens of mutually supportive scientists who wouldn't dream of holding back the march of knowledge for mere personal glory -- that the game seems a bit shy of tooth-bared competitiveness.

The bestowing of blessed "tips" and the gift of crucial clubs are commonplace between players. Ask Trevino how he won the richest of tournaments, the TPC, and he'll say it was because J. C. Snead walked up behind him on the practice range and straightened out his game with one observation.

Players can joke about their gamesmanship because there is so little of it. "I should get some ear muffs so I can't hear these guys jangling change in their pockets while I'm putting, or saying bad things about me while I'm driving," said Snead playfully.

In this gentlemanly realm where no one is surprised if a player penalizes or disqualifies himself because of an infraction that no one else has seen, a fellow who jangled change would be ostracized back into line in a hurry.

Without question, the Tour does its best to enforce a cautious, conservative tone in all that it does, as though it were an exclusive prep school or a great corporation. Comical dress and beard regulations exist.

As might be expected, in an atmosphere where the range of socially acceptable thoughts is limited, the range of expression for those familiar thoughts is extremely inventive. In other words, golfers have mastered the art of saving nothing with wonderful style. A low, screaming shot, for instance, "left paint all the way down the fairway," while a proper high shot landing near the pin "is turning down the stack."

Out of the mouths of America's most clean-cut group of athletes, except perhaps bowlers, come a rich vein of slang that makes the drugged-up wildmen of the NFL seem bland.

That is not a surprise. The Tour has more than its share of paradoxes. From the outside, it seems the most elite and glamorous of all our sports -- a leisurely, luxurious path to all the perks for which other athletes break their bones.

Few golfers, however, completely come to pleasant final terms with this itinerant lifestyle. Just as they battle with their swings, they struggle with a rootless life.

At a tour stop two months ago, Tom Watson veered off the course, bending under the gallery ropes and marching into the backyard of a condominium that adjoined the eighth fairway. The condo, you see, belonged to him, at least for the week. It has home, sort of.

In the yard, his wife, Linda played with their daughter, their first child. As the spectators gawked, wondering if Watson had suddenly gone haywire between shots, the tiny child threw her arms around her father's neck.

A minute later, Watson has marched back under the ropes onto the course.

"God," said Watson to no one in particular, a smile splitting his face, "is her hair ever going to be red."