Golf is a ladder with many rungs, each one of which must be climbed slowly and arduously. It is almost unheard of to take them two at a time.

Even the most casual golfer understands the plateaus of the game: the struggle to break 100, the war to break bogey, then the dubious life work of getting to scratch.

For the pro golfer, that ladder is divided into fractions of a stroke per round. The lines of distinction are nearly invisible, yet they are also all-important.

No one, not even the greatest player, knows for a certainty how high he can climb until he is actually there.

Each season, some new PGA player hand-over-hands his way to top-10 prominence as everybody else on the ladder watches intently to see where he will stop. In 1978, it was Gil Morgan.In 1979, it was Larry Nelson. hThey came from the relative obscurity of 24th and 45th places, respectively, to No. 2 money winner behind Tom Watson.

This year, it is George Burns III who is the tour's most improved player to date, scrambling up from 33rd place on the money list to sixth ($150,288) at the symbolic midpoint of the season, the U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Baltusrol in Springfield, N.J.

Few players have a clearer sense of the ladder struggle than Burns, who has been through 15 teachers, diets, exercise programs, psychocybernetics, endless self-analysis, a dozen swing theories, and five years of emotional trauma to reach the exalted point where he is today -- for the moment.

Golf, it's said, can put you in a little rubber room. That, however, is exactly where Burns wants to be.

"I've always driven myself crazy wondering what the great players think -- what goes on in their minds," says the 6-foot-2, 30-year-old who is hot-tempered, Redford-handsome and the antithesis of the compact, self-contained tour clone pro.

"I watch Watson play and he seems to hypnotize himself," says Burns, who was recruited by the University of Maryland as a football defensive end but, instead, became the captain of the Terp golf team.

"Watson's pleasant. He'll talk with you. But it's obvious he's not really there. He's locked himself in his own private little rubber room of concentration and he's thrown away the key."

Every player wants to find that solitary room of the mind where, as Burns says, "all your energies are focused right there in the present instant. Then, you have a special physical and psychological edge."

Few, however, have found that search as much as strain as Burns. He is the first to admit his problems.

"I had no junior golf background. I picked up the game late. I became serious about it late. I didn't turn pro until I was 25," he says. "I heard the snide remarks. I had a flying elbow and an unorthodox swing. Other, players said, 'Some country club lost a solid seven-handicapper when Burns turned pro.'"

Burns also heard the one-liners about how he didn't need the golf pro life because of his father's money. "Burns is the only player who has pulled himself down by his boot straps," wrote one columnist.

"My dad didn't do me any favors when he put that "HI' after my name," says Burns. "Sometimes I feel like that Johnny Cash song -- 'A Boy Named Sue.'

"For years, all I've heard about is all this money I'm supposed to have. Jerry Pate's always making some smart crack about, 'Why is George Burns out here?'

"Well, my family's finances are nobody's damn business. My dad worked for everything he's got (as a Coke executive). We have money, but no more than plenty of other players out here, like Watson, whose family is well off in insurance."

Topping off Burns' aggravations was his immediate money success, undetermined by a total inability to play steadily once he got into or close to, the final-round lead. In four seasons, he won $367,087 but no tournaments.

"I could get close to winning, but I was missing something," says Burns. "I'd back off, or blow up, or get a case of the nerves.

"I'd set a five-year plan to decide if this was the life for me," says Burns, "and this season was the make-or-break year for me."

What about the $107,830 he won in '79?

"That doesn't get it for me," says Burns crisply.

A playboy and occasional hell-raiser as a youth -- "It's a good thing for me that the golf coach at Maryland had a red line campus police," he says with a laugh -- Burns settled down after his marriage and birth of a daughter (in '76).

But it wasn't until the end of last season that he finally grew up and realized he either had to use or lose the major talent he had been given.

"I'd always been a pudgy guy," says Burns. "I lost more than 20 pounds -- down to 195. I even went to South America after I got the weight off, figuring the food down there wouldn't look as good to me and I could stabilize my eating habits.

"I went to an orthopedist who put lifts in my shoes for my back problems. That meant I could practice longer without discomfort. It's gotten so I have the (practice) range bug. I feel like I'm cheating myself when I'm not there. I don't want anybody sneaking up on me by being lazy."

Once they climb up the ladder starts, it gets a bit easier.

"I teamed with Ben Crenshaw in the Disney World team tournament (the last event of '79) and we won," says Burns. "It was sort of half-victory. It took heat off me. I had been a contributor. I felt I'd shaken a bad rep."

After his winter of dedication, Burns came out of the box and won the fourth tournament of the year -- the Crosby -- by a shot. "I couldn't sleep the whole night after I won," beams Burns. "I had stayed ahead of the pressure. On every shot down the stretch . . . I don't know how to explain . . . by the time the pressure got there, I was gone."

Under a new PGA pairing system, tournament winners are more likely now to be grouped together in early rounds. "It's like I had suddenly joined a different caste," says Burns.

"It's rubbed off on me. What you see with Watson or Trevino or Floyd or Irwin is their hearts. They're fighters," says Burns.

"I can make birdies from everywhere. I've discovered that I'm a darn escape artist," says Burns, who ranks third on tour in fewest putts and is fifth in percentage of birdie holes.

"What I'm learning, I hope, is not to give all the strokes back to the course so fast when I start going bad," says Burns.

"In this game, you have too much time to think. You fall victim to all sorts of preshot traumas.

"Just watch Watson from the time he takes the club out of the bag until he hits it -- it's never more than 10 seconds. He decides. He sets up. And he says, 'Go.' He seems to have no second thoughts or doubts. God, I can't imagine that."

Any man, like Burns, who has been to 15 teachers, and still works with three, is never going to be trauma-free.

"George hits the ball long and straight off the tee," says Ray Floyd. "His irons are high and soft. He's a great putter and has a good touch around the greens. Every time I play with him, I come away thinking he should win every week."

Even Burns knows that is overly enthusiastic.

When I hear Jimmy Connors grunt after he hits a tennis shot, I wish I had that release," says Burns. "When you make a mistake, it eats at you. Everybody's looking at you. When I've had a bad final round and I call my dad on the phone, he tries to hide how he feels, but I can tell by the man's voice what my performance has done to him.

"The world's too tough and life's too tough to let the negative get you down. I'm going to teach my daughter that.

"But I still have to admit that this game drives me crazy. Time after time, I come off the course -- whether I played great or terrible -- and I ask myself 'Why did you do what you did today!'

"And the truth is, I never know."

What about winning the U.S. Open?

"I can't even think about the yet," Burns says bluntly. "I have a lot more steps to take."