Royal St. George's Golf Club is a sea of swelling, rolling grasses that extends to the occasionally glimpsed horizon of a swelling, rolling English Channel.

Out on this south Kent site of the 110th British Open a golfer has a sense of disorientation, of a man lost in a tiny dinghy on a stormy sea. Amid the dunes, the humps and hollows and the knee- to waist-high grasses, all directions and distances seem the same, especially since no landmark, no tree or bush taller than a one-iron, exists anywhere.

"Out there, you think, 'Where in the world am I?'" said Ray Floyd today after his first visit to one of England's three most famous links. "If it weren't for the grandstands they've put up for the Open, I'd have felt completely lost."

That moody atmosphere of salt wind, chill air, suddenly changing lights as the clouds scud and, always, the oddly invigorating desolation of barren links leading to the sea, is a large part of what British golf -- Open golf -- has always been. Royal St. George's, often and warmly described as being "as near to heaven as an earthly links can be," will offer that distinctive ambiance once more when it hosts the Open for the ninth time, although for only the first time since 1949, beginning Thursday.

However, another vital portion of British-links golf has to do with the esthetics of the game, not the ethos of the place.

And that's where this year's controversy has started to blow.

"Coming back here this year, I'm saddened and disappointed," said Tom Watson with dismay. "They've Americanized the place. I come here to play British golf and it's obvious that, this week, American golf will win."

"The fairways and greens here should be like this," said traditionalist Watson sternly, rapping his knuckles hard on a bare wood table. "That's British golf.

"But they've put in a watering system and made the whole place lush and soft and green and beautiful," said the 30-year-old, three-time British Open champion, as though those adjectives were obscene.

"It's lost the links flavor . . . A different course altogether now," sighed Watson, like a young painter after seeing the work of an old master slashed.

What Watson means is that they've taken away the defending-champion's hole card -- his ability to blend variety in shotmaking with flexibility of judgment. Three times in the last six years he's won this tournament; twice, he practically lapped the field. This was his event.

Then, Watson arrived here this week and discovered that the Royal and Ancient had thrown water -- megatons of it -- at his favorite corner of the golfing world.

Now, Watson feels he might as well be back home. "You just aim any kind of shot at a specific target and, if it lands there, it'll stick," said Watson ruefully.

"We're back to playing this way," he said, and made a gesture with both hands to indicate the high, floating American-style shot that flies like an arrow over encircling traps and troubles, then sticks on the target in the center. By contrast, the British way is to scoot the low, hard running shot accurately between obstacles, through the always open nick of links greens and at the pin.

"There's never been a British Open like this," chuckled Lee Trevino today. "It's American-course conditions, which are beautiful, on a links layout."

What does that do to his chances?

"'Bout kills 'em," said Trevino, a two-time Open champion and another player always better suited to this event than, perhaps, any other major.

"I hit that low burner that'll roll 50 years at the very least. Well, it ain't runnin' no more," said Trevino. "Ray Floyd was out-drivin' me by 60 to 80 yards every hole.

"It'll probably be a big, long, highball hitter like Ray, Jack (Nicklaus), (Greg) Norman, Seve (Ballesteros), or, for a dark horse, Jerry Pate, who'll win. Goes without sayin' that Watson can play any style and can win. It just, maybe, doesn't suit him as much as it did before."

The rich irony of this Open is that the very players who would have their best chance this year -- the Americans with textbook target swings (but, perhaps, not the savvy, experience or smarts for British golf) -- are the ones who aren't here.

This may go down as the year that the Americans didn't come.

Oh, the superstars are all here -- Watson, Micklaus, Trevino, Ben Crenshaw, Bruce Lietzke, Floyd and St. Arnold of Palmer, who'd be buried in the statesmen's alcove at Westminister Abbey if the British had their way.

However, of the top 20 American tour money winners of 1980 -- all automatically exempt -- a resounding 11 are not here, including Curtis Strange, Andy Bean, George Burns, Mike Reid, Larry Nelson, Bill Kratzert, Howard Twitty, John Mahaffey, Doug Tewell, Bob Gilder and Tom Kite. Other names like Tom Weriskopf, Gil Morgan and Hale Irwin have scratched.

According to Nicklaus, the reason is simple: it's too expensive to come.

"It costs at least $5,000 to $6,000 to come to the British Open, and maybe more, depending on the size of your family, if they come, too," said Nicklaus. "Part of the problem is the extremely high prices for rooms, food, everything. In America, when foreign players come, there are efforts made to get special rates or accommodations for everything from airplane fares on down. No one in England seems to be making that organized effort to make it financially reasonable to come here."

That $6,000 guesstimate on expenses, for instance, means a player would have to finish 16th or better out of more than 150 players just to break even.

You come here for the prestige or the experience. And, if you aren't a golf millionaire, perhaps you only come once.

In a sense, the British Open is, like English society, a closed event. Here, a few golf aristocrats gather to add one more prestigious bauble to their credentials of superstardom, while 140 international journeymen fill out the field of a tourney that perhaps only a dozen men can win.

To illustrate, in the last 11 years, these are the winners: Watson (three), Nicklaus (two), Trevino (two), Weiskopf, Player, Johnny Miller and Ballesteros. Nicklaus has finished first or second 10 times and Watson may, in time, duplicate the feat.

Since Arnold Palmer first began coming here 21 years ago, tipping his cap to the world of golf outside American and, surely just by accident, vastly increasing his worldwide commercail potential, it has been considered classy to return here to take a divot or two from the roots of the sport.

This, then, is a gathering place for kings and commoners from the seven continents of golf. For the many, it is a sacred, although costly, pilgrimage, like those made many centuries ago by other pilgrims to Canterbury Cathedral, just 10 miles from Royal St. George's.

For the few, it is a small, closed affair that helps a bit in deciding who is the greatest golfer in the world.

Those foreign potentates, especially the Americans, are treated as only the British can bow to royalty. The crowds part before them; their names are murmured everywhere.

As Watson stood talking here, Nicklaus spied him and crept up behind him with a quick move. Nicklaus locked Watson in a half-nelson and pretended he was about to remove his young usurper's right arm and shoulder. Watson never had to glimpse behind him to know who had immobilized him.

In all of Britain, only one may has the proper golfing blood lines to lay hands upon Watson on the grounds of Royal St. George's. "Thought there was a bear about," said Watson instantly, without even seeing Nicklaus.

"Want to play?" asked Nicklaus, obeying golfing etiquette that says the great always dictate who will play with them: You always ask down the scale, never up.

"Tomorrow, noon?" said Watson instantly, obeying the code that you always give a greater luminary the first available opportunity.

"You got a game," said Nicklaus.

That, in a sense, is the British Open: a small, private match between giants, like the one that James Bond and Goldfinger of fiction once played on these links with a two-continent nassau on the side.