It was a totally off-the-wall question: "At the Masters, considering your history of finishing so close so often without winning, if you had one mulligan, one shot you could take over out of your 50 career rounds there, what would it be?"

Tom Weiskopf's answer came so quickly it had to have been playing on his mind more often than he would care to admit: "My second shot at 17 the year George Archer beat me (by a stroke in 1969). An eight-iron. I'd knocked a big tee shot over the tree that hit one of those TV cameras they have on a cart and ended up right where the gallery walks.

"I had a kinda bad lie and I hit it fat, put it in the front bunker and ended up making bogey after blasting out to about eight feet. George and I were tied at the time, playing together, and he two-putted from 50 feet. The reason I say my second shot is because at that time there was continuous putting -- an if I'd put the ball on the green (closer to the hole than Archer) I doubt if he'd have two-putted.

"That was the first time I ever had a chance to win at Augusta, and it just might have changed my whole life. Instead of finishing second four times, I might have won four Masters by now."

Another thought had been troubling Weiskopf during lunch at Congressional: "Oh, let's erase what I said (about not giving a damn about what anyone thinks of him). I've been in a bad mood for about two weeks, 'cause I've been playing pretty well and not going anywhere. That's the frustration with this game. At times, I'm playing better than I ever have played. I'm hitting really good golf shots.

"But you just can't beat these guys unless you throw a 64 or 65 in there one round, unless it's a tough course like this where a 68's a helluva round. I think I'm forcing too much pressure on myself, because I do like to compete and the game's still fun. That's all I want to do."

By the pro tour standards most of us cannot even begin to comprehend, Weiskopf has been ordinary for nearly three years. For a stretch in the early and mid-'70s, there was nobody consistently better. In an eight-week period in 1973, he won five tournaments, including his only major, the British Open. During one 40-round binge, he shot in the 60s an astonishing 20 times.

"Now I'm getting sympathy letters (for failing to make the Masters this year)," he said. He has a face that can be melting as well as menacing, and it was slipping into an ironic smile now. Affection for Weiskopf? Terrible Tom? Tempestuous Tom? Tortured Tom?

He might be Tom Terrific to some, at last, but his reputation proceeded him to the 17th green at Congressional during Wednesday's pro-am. Two guards had been asked if anyone lethal had passed through earlier, the reference being to the horde of golfing Agnews on the course, rich amateurs who can buy anything but a swing.

"No," one of them said, "but Weiskopf's back there on the fairway."

He is his generation's Tommy Bolt, compelling at times because in one 6-foot-3 volcano is both golf's most majestic swing and its most outwardly human personality. Weiskopf often has been us on the course, trying so hard and still failing to be as good as he burns to be, and then not being able to hide his fury.

Those of us who understand that golf was devised by devils have silently wished Weiskopf sometimes would woosh a wedge as far as it deserves to be slung. More civil-minded fans are offended by him almost on sight. In the first round yesterday, he was breaking par rather than clubs, with a two-under 68.

Nearly everybody would like a trip inside Weiskopf's head, from which hairs seem to be deserting in droves of late. There was a 90-minute voyage available the other day, and it took some revealing turns.

Or had you been aware that Weiskopf grew up as a public-course player, that he had no serious golf lessons until college and that he spent most of his 21st and 22nd years of his life as a golf hustler after quitting Ohio State before his junior year?

"Used to play for the Mafia," Weiskopf blurted out at one point. "Used to get 20 per cent of whatever was bet. There was a guy there (in Columbus) who was a big gambler and told me I could make lots of money in the summers. I traveled all over the state, into Pennsylvania and a little bit of Indiana and Michigan, and they'd always set me up with these guys who really liked to gamble.

"I'd always go into those towns and play a practice round the day before the match. Seemed like just about everywhere I went I shot the course record. I got beat once in a while, too, but it was great incentive, where I really learned to play 'cause the better I got the more money I earned. I also got $50 for every birdie I made and $100 for every eagle.

"At the end of two years, I had $15,000 in cash in a brown paper bag. How 'bout that? In my room. Kept it in my closet. Nobody'd let me put it in a bank, 'cause I didn't have a job. How the hell are you gonna walk into a bank with $15,000 cash and say you want to open up an account?"

There would be questions.

"What would I say about my job, how I got all that cash?" he said. "That I hustle?

"I'll never forget why I quit, not as long as I live. I was playing a guy, and just beating the hell out of him on a lot of bets. So on the 18th tee there was another press. It was a very long par 5 and I hit my shot down the fairway quite a ways. I was really long back then, much more than now, and this guy got up and hooked his tee shot over in the trees.

"So he came up to me and said: 'I gotta win this hole.'

"I said: 'All you've got to do is beat me.'

"He said: 'You don't realize' -- and here the guy had tears in his eyes -- 'My business is on the line if I lose this.'

"I said: 'Hey, you're a big fellow. You ought to know what in hell you're betting. It's not my fault you're in the trees.'

"So he went over there and hit his second shot, across the fairway into the other trees. Now he got a stroke on this hole. But it was the first time I'd ever felt any compassion for anybody, because I could see he was sincerely upset about the consequences. I had no idea about how much was on the line; they never told me that."

Weiskopf had a four-iron left to the green. A four-iron to reach what even he considered a continental par 5. His mind suddenly mushy, Weiskopf hit the ball fat, left it 20 yards short of the green. The desperate hacker hit his third shot into the middle of the fairway and his fourth shot into a greenside bunker.

"He walked by me again and says -- no, pleads: 'Can't you help me?' All at once this guy I always used to travel with, one of the Big Guys, comes over, grabs me by the arm and says: 'What'd he ask you?'

"I said: 'Nothing.'

"He said: 'You sure?' Then he looked me in the eyes, hard like you wouldn't believe, like he knew the fix might be on. That's when I knew I'm in the wrong business.

"So this guy's in the bunker, right? Now he blades the shot, the ball hits up in the flag, wraps around it and drops down into the cup. For 5. He jumped into the air. He was crying, not with tears of despair like before but tears of joy. He's down on his knees, crying."

The Big Guy then walked to Weiskopf and said, ominously: "You better get that ball up and down."

"I'd never felt pressure like that before in my life," Weiskopf said. "I pitched it up there to about four or five feet. I looked the putt over and over, thinking if I miss they'll figure I did it on purpose."

And be seething enough to plant the flag through him.

"I knocked it in," he said, "and we tied the hole. That's the last time I ever got in a situation like that. I don't know what happened to that poor guy, but I made an awful lot of money that day, about $6,000. And that was supposed to be 20 per cent of what was bet. Think about that, how much that was in 1964! Six thousand bucks. Cash."

Weiskopf would have richer days, for he soon officially turned pro. But few tougher ones.