Golf is the game that measures quit. If, at the deepest strata of your competitiveness, you can be daunted, then golf will expose it.

That's why funky-spunky-punky Tom Kite, who won more money than anybody in his sport last season, beat Jack Nicklaus and rabbit Denis Watson with a chip-in birdie on the first hole of a sundown-moonlight playoff to win Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Classic today.

On this afternoon of werewolf golf--when both Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd had the $54,000 first prize securely in their hands and tossed the cash to the devilish Florida winds--Kite was the only fellow who never stopped plugging, even when he was six shots behind with seven holes to play and thought that he had "less chance than a snowball in hell."

"Are you believin' that job?" asked the cocky, candid Kite, after his final-round 69, for a six-under-par 278 total, plus his 20-foot playoff birdie, had given him his fourth tour win in 11 seasons. "Is that like stealin?"

"Where'd you come from?" asked a friend, meaning that before Kite birdied three of the final six holes of his round he wasn't even on the top-10 leader board.

"Who knows?" answered Kite, who is equally famous on the tour for his consistently high finishes and his almost infallible ability to avoid victory. "I was ready to head on down the road (to the next tournament) . . . hey, I was trying to make one birdie coming in and maybe get fifth place . . . but if you think I'm going to turn it back, you're crazy."

This rain-tormented affair, which required an extra day and was finished with a full moon in the sky and the sun barely peeping over the horizon, had a rich denouement.

With two holes to play, four men were tied for the lead: Kite in the clubhouse and Nicklaus, Floyd and Watson in the final threesome.

First, Floyd exited with his second watery double-bogey of the back nine when he splashed on the 223-yard 17th hole.

Next, Nicklaus saved a gorgeous par at the 18th with a wedge shot to a yard after hitting his second shot into the grandstand, then getting a free drop. As he trudged up that brutal, conversation-piece 456-yard par-4, he kibitzed to the crowd, saying, "Arnold (Palmer), you sure made it interesting."

On the playoff hole, a 426-yard par-4, Nicklaus joked on the tee, "Let's see if I've got a ball without a cut. We've been through a box of 'em, the way I've played."

All three players hit the green or fringe in regulation. Nicklaus had a 20-foot putt. "Jack hit it pure, as good a putt as he'll ever hit," said Kite. But, as Nicklaus put it, "It cruised the edge."

Next, Kite faced an 18-foot chip with an eight-iron--one of this short-game genius' specialities. "The chips have been dodging us all week," Kite's caddie said. "Let's make one." And Kite did--front-door style, followed by much fist pumping and gyrating.

Finally, hard-luck Watson, a long hitter from South Africa, missed a 15-footer, the umpteenth putt, including three lip-outs, that he missed in his round of 72.

However, many a man might have won today and didn't--including Craig Stadler, who got to seven under par before bogeying two of the last four holes to finish in a fourth-place tie with Lanny Wadkins at 279.

The golf club is like a dip stick that measures guts. All too often, when the sun is going down in the final round, players turn up a quart low.

To a degree, that's what happened to two of golf's finest competitors this day--Nicklaus and Floyd--who shot 75 and 76, respectively.

"How often do you see Jack and Raymond do that?" said Kite, who told his caddie as they walked off the 14th green, "Will you look at what these guys are doin?' If we can make three birdies we can still win the tournament."

Nicklaus, who began the round in front by a shot, could have won with a humble 74 and Floyd, who led by two shots at one point on the back nine, needed only a 73.

"I've obviously done something right the last few tournaments. But not quite enough right," said Nicklaus, who has finished third, second, 11th and second in his four starts this season. "I'm not too enamored of shooting 74 and 75 in the final round the last two weeks . . .

"I had the tournament. All I had to do was play golf today and win it. I didn't do a very good job of that . . . I never played in a threesome where I saw so many bad shots. Raymond and Denis and I hit the ball everywhere . . . I'll totally forget this day, I hope."

Actually, Nicklaus' finish was almost as much a testament to fortitude as Kite's first victory in exactly 52 weeks (since the 1982 Inverrary Classic). For 12 holes, the Golden Bear was unspeakably atrocious, culminating his sporadic performance by backing out of a tie for the lead with Floyd by making a succession of weekender's mistakes on the 11th and 12th holes.

That's when Nicklaus showed he was Nicklaus. On the 12th hole, after already double bogeying 11, Nicklaus still was in the greenside rough, 25 feet from the hole, after his fifth shot on the par 5.

"I just had to chip it in or (say) bye-bye to the tournament. And I chipped it in," said Nicklaus.

Just three holes later, after making eight-foot birdies at the 15th and 16th, Nicklaus looked at the scoreboard and said to his caddie, "Good gracious, how can I be leading (tied) the way I've played?"

Nicklaus' estimable refusal to fold on one of his worst days almost overshadowed Kite's long overdue and deserved victory. But not quite.

"It's no fun working as hard as you can, day in and day out, without getting any rewards," said the delighted Kite, who won the 1981 Vardon Trophy. "To finish second or third, everybody says, 'Gee, you're making so much money.' But the whole thing we're out here doing is trying to win tournaments."

Kite believes this so sincerely, that after last season, he voted for Bill Rogers, not himself, in a player of the year poll in which he finished a close second.

"Winning is what really matters, not cashin' (checks). And today was finally my day," said the little man who has, perhaps, the least quit in him of any player on tour.