These are simple days for Tom Watson, for whom playing golf is slightly harder than breathing.

"I call it 'playing easy,'" explained the PGA Tour's leading money winner. "When you're playing well, everything becomes automatic. You still have to plan the shot. But otherwise you hardly think. You concentrate on the feel of the shot rather than the mechanics. It's a simple, routine motion that becomes an instinct. That feeling makes it a lot easier to play."

Not for his competitors. For the last three years, Watson, a Stanford Univesity psychology graduate, has practiced a most blatant mental cruelty by consistently beating their brains in.

The drubblings began in 1977, when Watson won four tournaments, including the Masters, and led the money list with $310,653. At that time, that was the thrid-highest one-season total in PGA history.

In retrospect, it wasn't a very good year. In 1978, he won five times and set an earnings record of $363,429.

Last season he finally started taking the game seriously. He again won five tournaments, including the Byron Nelson and Colgate Hall of Fame the second straight time.

When he lost, he wasn't losing by much, finsihing second in the Tournament Players Championship, tying for second in the Masters after a playoff, and finishing third in the Canadian Open. When he was through counting his change, it amounted to $462,636, his second consecutive record.

This year Watson should open a new branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. He already has won five tournaments, including, as usual, the Tournament of Champions and the Byron Nelson, the latter completing a three-week sweep, and earned more than $300,000. And it's still May.

Unless he takes the rest of the year off or the tour is canceled due to lack of interest, he should break his earnings record.

Despite these numbers, and despite winning the Vardon Trophy (low stroke average) and his colleagues' recognition as Player of the Year three straight times, Watson is loathe to admit that he is ever the main man.

"I might think I can win a tournament, but I rarely think I'm the man to beat," he said. "If I were, I wouldn't tell you or anyone else. I can't say I'm going to win a particular tournament, just like you can't say in a bad streak that you're going to have more confidence. And I don't think I'd ever say I can't lose."

A shred of humanity, perhaps? An admission of imperfection? Wait. There's more.

"There's no perfect round of golf," Watson said. "Even when I'm playing well, I expect to hit bad shots. I rarely hit every shot the way I want to, and rarely have I gone through a round when every shot was exactly where and how I wanted it.

"What does happen when you're playing easy is that your errors become mimimal. You narrow them down so that each shot is a little bit less off. And when you make a mistake, you don't brood over it. When you're playing poorly, you're always wondering: 'Was that an error in my swing? Will it happen again?' When you're playing well, you feel much more than think. The swing becomes routine and you just put it in motion."

But of course. Then you go out and shoot 69 in the second round of last year's Memorial Tournament when the wind-chill factor was 13 degrees. The average score of the field was 79. "I think that was my finest round," Watson said. Many of his peers thought it was the finest round of golf ever played.

Or you put the putter in motion and sink a 20-footer on the 17th hole at Augusta to break a tie with Jack Nicklaus and win the 1977 Masters.Two months later, you do it again, shooting a 65 to Nicklaus' 66 in the final round of the British Open.

Watson learned his swing from Bryon Nelson, one of the game's greats. "You never saw the ball when Byron hit it because you were still looking at how beautiful his swing was," Watson said. Like teacher, like pupil. Perhaps that's why he still calls Nelson when he occasionally has problems. And maybe that's why the force has been with him the last three Byron Nelson Classics.

The Force has rarely left Watson since those performances against Nicklaus forever buried the "choker" label he had carried after blowing final-round leads in the 1974 U.S. Open and 1975 Masters and folding again in the Open two months later.

His chief concern other than deciding how to invest his earnings, is one shared by all his colleagues: Can't tell the players without a scorecard? Current wisdom says you can't tell the golfers no matter what. The rap is they're asembly-line products. And watching the sport on television barely edges mowing the lawn as an exciting afternoon.

"I think that's totally unjustified," Watson said. "Everyone has his own individual style. If that's what everyone thinks, they ought to come out and watch us play. I'm not trying to be Lee Trevino. And if they think we're colorless and bland, let them put live mikes on us."

They did. But when CBS viewers heard some colorful language from Lanny Wadkins, and NBC watchers heard Tom Kite criticize John Schroeder for taking days to hit a shot, the PGA decided that its members should revert to being seen and not heard. End of experiment.

"If someone's leading by six or seven shots with a few holes to go, then certainly the tournament's over and it won't be too interesting," Watson said. "But if there are three or four guys in it to the end, then it's as good as anything else you could see. If people can't accept good golf as it is, then why are we on TV anyway?"

These days it's so viewers can watch Tom Watson take another walk to the winner's circle.