Isao Aoki and Eiji Watanabe are at opposite ends of the Japanese golf spectrum.

Aoli, 38, is Japan's leading money winner, the man who sank a $120,000 hole in one in England in 1978 and chased Jack Nicklaus all the way in this year's U.S. Open.

Watanabe is a 41-year-old office worker who regards himself as a keen golfer, but normally gets no closer to a course than his local driving range.

You can see him and thousands of others practicing their swings with rolled-up newspapers and umbrellas in Tokyo railwy stations.

Golf in Japan is revered as an exact science, the most complete status symbol. And its heroes, like Aoki, are worshiped with the sort of idolatry reserved elsewhere for football quarterbacks, soccer players, and race car drivers.

In the early 1970s, Aoki was an erratic finisher with an unorthodox style, playing in the shadow of national superstar Masahi (Jumbo) Ozaki, a long-ball hitter with the build of a linebacker who began his sports carrer, in fact, smashing home runs.

The turning point was 1978. Aoki had won six major tournaments at home, but had done nothing spectacular aboard. He was invited to play in the 16-man lineup for the $300,000 World Match Play Championship in England.

He still is not sure why he was invited. "Maybe because I finished in a seventh place tie in the British Open (won by Nicklaus)."

No one paid any attention until he disposed of America's Lee Elder, 5 and 3, in the first round and five-time winner Gary Player of South Africa, 2 and 1. After dazzling American Ray Floyd, 3 and 2, in the semifinal, Aoki disposed of little-known New Zealander Simon Owen by a similar margin in the 36-hole final.

The $60,000 check for that performance boosted his overall 1978 earnings to nearly $400,000.

The heroics were even more spectacular in the 1979 Match Play Championship at Wentworth, England. Heading for his second straight final, Aoki fired the "shot heard around the world" at the 155-yard second hold with a stunning seven-iron hole in one.

That miracle shot -- his third in pro tournaments in the past seven years -- earned him a two-bedroom townhouse, fully furnished, and conservatively estimated to be worth at least $120,000.

In fact, with one shot he earned more than America's Bill Rogers, who defeated him in the final.

That loss, however, was overlooked at home. His hole in one before an army of Japanese reporters and broadcasters, who beamed it back home via satellite, made Aoki a national hero. His U.S. Open runner-up performance this year ws merely the icing on the cake.

Aoki, in fact, saved male honor by his 1978 match play triumph. It marked the first victory in an overseas individual event by a Japanese male (Chako Higuchi won the 1976 European Women's Open and then took the 1977 U.S. LPGA championship).

Aoki believes his success has come because of a change in attitude. "I've finally learned how to be patient, and never to give up in a tournament."

Critics used to say his biggest fault was deciding he no longer had a chance for victory when he fell behind. He would play casually, swapping jokes and conversation with the gallery.

These days he is far more taciturn. "Yes," he says, "I've definitely become more serious. It's all business now."

He rarely talks to spectators and also has given up smoking while playing, channeling all his concentration into hitting the ball. His long game always has been good, and with help from the best -- Nicklaus, Trevino, etc. -- he has developed a far more deadly short game around the greens.

Japanese golfers have long had a reputation for steadiness.They are technicians who take few chances. Aoki has added color, flair and imagination, which is why most experts believe he has gained international status.

The Japanese are usually better team players, as American golfers have found to their dismay in competition here.

After the rigors of the U.S. PGA tour, many of the big names come to Japan to wind out the year with some more relaxing golf, fat pay checks, public acclaim and the challenge posed by narrow, hilly, well-bunkered but immaculately groomed courses.

Early this month, U.S. golfers made a strong comeback over the last two rounds to force a 2,280-stroke tie with a nine-man Japanese team led by Aoki. rJerry Pate won the individual event by a stroke from Tom Purtzer, helping to stop the rout that had seen the Japanese take five straight victories in the annual team competition.

The Japanese now are a major force on the golf scene. Behind Aoki there is considerable depth of talent waiting for the big chance to break out. Big things are expected, for example, from match play champion Haruo Yasuda and the exciting young Tohru Nakamura.

Any aspiring young Japanese pro golfer faces a tough apprenticeship. One of the first things he has to do is find somewhere to play, and someone to pick up his bills,

Japan's golfing population is estimated at 18 million, but only a fraction will get onto a real course regularly; the rest spend their time at driving ranges and dream. There currently are about 1,600 courses in this land of 118 million people. Barely 10 percent are public courses.

Private golf club memberships are so expensive -- and virtually impossible to obtain -- that they have become the preserve of major corporations. Koganei Country Club in suburban Tokyo, for example, charges an entry fee of $130,000.

One reason for Koganei's expense is the high cost of Japanese real estate.

Eighty percent of the club's greens fees go to pay almost half a million dollars in annual land taxes.

For Eiji Watanabe, that sort of money is out of the question. He has to take his chances on the handful of public courses. Tokyo's most popular course operates a reservation system by telephone starting at exactly 9 a.m. one month in advance of the playing date.

Watanabe gets most of his golf games (one a month if he's lucky) through his office. He and his colleagues contribute a few cents a week toward the cost if staging a competition (the company also makes a contribution).

The beauty of playing golf at this level in Japan is that there are no losers. There are awards for the winner, best gross and net scores, tee shots nearest the pin on selected holes, most shots hit out of bounds, big wave prize (greatest difference between out and in scores) and small wave prize (least difference). Finally, there is a prize for everybody who tees up.