"I had climbed the mountain," Johnny Miller was saying. "I had climbed the mountain I'd always dreamed of climbing -- and I wanted to rest and enjoy it."

Miller is not sure he will ever climb so high in golf gain, to the point of being nonpareil for more than two years. Or even if he wants to try. He never has been driven, in the rocket-octane sense of Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson, except that he wants to win the Masters as desparetly as anyone can imagine. After today's round, he seems to have a fine chance.

You must know Miller's history here to understand why. Or at least his history in the Masters during what he calls his First Golfing Life, before he suddenly had no notion where what he hit would land. Until that slump of affluence, he was the essence of conficence going into every tournament he entered.

"If there was a nerve meter," he said, "I wouldn't register."

Before the Masters, Miller started wilting at the sight of the first azalea. He usually played the opening round about as badly as a great player ever does, something in the order of three over par each year. He often played spectacularly the final three rounds, but never enough to overcome that opening-day frazzle and win.

After the first round today, Miller was tied for the lead. Although he would rather smack himself upside the head with a one-iron than predict victory, he does volunteer: "I'm probably the best front-runner -- recordwise -- who ever played the game. I love to just drill the other guys."

Miller was talking in the grill room of the Augusta National clubhouse, watching replays of his three-under-par 69 and allowing a knot of reporters to go ahead and reopen all of what he calls "my old stab wounds."

He was expansive about why for the longest time he had no idea where his tee ball would land, whether it would split the middle of a fairway or some squirrel's head.

"The worst it ever got," he said, "was an 80 during the Bob Hope in '78. I was one over the four holes to go -- and shot 80. On 17, I hit my first tee shot an inch out of bounds. Then I hit a provisional that landed a yard out of bounds. And another that hit a marshal's shoe and ended up flat against a tree."

Miller has leaped from the depths nicely. He lost a playoff to Watson in the Hall of Fame tournament in Pinehurst in '79, won at Inverrary last year and twice, at Tucson and Los Angeles, this year. He is hoping everyone finally will buy his self-analysis for why, in '78 he finished 111th and 76th on the money list.

He grew to manhood, but still had a child's swing. And he was injured more than he would admit at the time.

"I lost my feel and my body changed," he said. "But nobody has been able to accept that. They always want more, like that I didn't practice. Or I had too much too soon. Well, I didn't practice. But it was because of tendinitis in my left wrist and bursitis in my shoulder.

"I'd been riding momentum, all the work I'd done as a kid and when I first came on tour. I never had a slump before. Not for a month. And I'd been playing this silly game since I was 5 years old. I couldn't imagine why I couldn't get my body to do what I wanted to to."

Mainly, it was because he no longer had the same body. Rich beyond imagination at so tender an age, Miller bought a ranch in '75. And actually worked it. He chopped trees and built and mended fences, and all the other chores most men with his money hire somebody else to do.

"In the first tournament of '76," he said, "everyone looked at me and said: 'You been lifting weights or something?' I looked like a football player."

And began playing like one, although he did win the '76 British Open and finished 14th on the money list.

"It takes a real special person to stay at the top," he said, referring to his time there. He had won the '73 U.S. Open with a final-round 63, eight tournaments in '74 and the first two in '75, with a four-round scores of 24 and 25 under par. "I'm a normal kind of guy. And it cost me." He groped for a non-sports analogy.

"Imagine being a lawyer, working most of your adult life toward passing the bar exam. When you get it, you'd want to take it easy a while, right? You wouldn't want to pass a bar exam every day. Well, I'd never had a ranch before, no property of any kind at all. So I enjoyed it -- and went from 173 to 196. I'm at 185 now, where I want to stay the rest of my career. f

"I had to adjust to my (bulkier) body. I had a kid's swing, big, upright, with a lot of body swale. I've tried to make it more one piece. It's taken a lot of patience. I believe at one time I was the best player in the world. aMy record proved it. So when I was terrible I believed I still must have had some talent.

"I kept plugging. I thought that somebody I would resurface. It happened to Gene Littler. I'm not on top again, but I've exceeded all expectations this year. I know I have the best performance average on tour. It's better than (Bruce) Lietzke -- and he's floating."

The major reason Miller floated today instead of fluttered in his usual Masters trance was making two short putts early. "I'd told myself I wasn't gonna get uptight this year, and I believed myself for once."

Still, with this swing Miller has developed to accomodate a man's body, a putter he used as a youngster and an old-fashioned way of gripping it helped mightily today.

"The putter was made in 1910 or something," he said, "I used to putt with it when I was 11 or 12 years old. It's an old blade putter, with a wooden shaft until I changed it a couple years ago. It's good for fast greens. With the one I'd been using that rocket putter, I'd have had to retrieve my ball out of the water sometimes today.

"The (putting) grip is like Byron Nelson used to use. Are any of you smart enough to know what that was?" Not until Miller showed us. He has the tip of his thumb, fingernail and all, pressed against the grip, "because it keeps my stroke straight."

Golfers tinker with their games constantly. Miller had an even more exotic grip that felt comfortable during the par-3 tournament here Wednesday but discarded it as "too funky-looking." Probably, it was not as safe as the one he went with today, because substance means far more than style to most players. They would putt with their noses if that would roll the ball into the hole more easily.

"Right now," he said, "my left wrist feels great. And the bursitis is over. There is nothing wrong with me. I want to win the Masters, so I can play here when I'm 60. The greatest thing I can imagine is to look forward to coming here each year, to playing in the par-3 and all that goes with the Masters.

"My biggest goal now, the reason I want to keep playing well, is not the endorsements or anything. I just want to sniff the roses every now and then on tour. I've always said serenity is knowing that your worst shot is going to be very good."

He has that now.