"Ask every professional on tour what his five favorite golf courses are in the world, and the one name that will be on everybody's list is Pebble Beach." --Tom Watson, practicing for the U.S. Open

As he walked to the tee of the tiny, precipitous, sand-locked, surf-rocked, wind-wracked 110-yard seventh at the Pebble Beach Golf Links, Jack Nicklaus paused to look at the vista before him. Standing at the top of the tip of this peninsula, Nicklaus, who was playing a practice round before Thursday's start of the U.S. Open here, had the full panoramic sweep of Pebble Beach around him.

To his right was a sheer cliff drop down to Stillwater Cove, and, in the distance, the cypress-wooded promontory of Pescadero Point. To his left was blue-black, kelp-clogged Carmel Bay lapping on a mile of white Monastery Beach and, beyond that, the long rocky reach of Point Lobos.

Around the tee was impenetrable barranca, full of wildflowers, Scotch broom and sea grasses. On those huge ocean rocks not washed with waves were perched hundreds of sea birds. Behind Nicklaus, the foothills of the Gabilan Range began their climb, their heights covered with fog. Straight ahead lay the Pacific.

"This sure is beautiful," was all he said.

Like many who come here, Nicklaus has learned the foolishness of trying to hem in Pebble Beach with words. As every golf buff knows, Robert Louis Stevenson called this Monterey Peninsula "the greatest meeting of land and water" anywhere on earth--and Stevenson got around some.

Even photographs are inadequate to the sight. They catch only a narrow arc of the place's 360-degree impact. And, inevitably, they tend to flatten what is, in reality, a wild and craggy place. Take two steps off the right side of the eighth fairway and it's 200 feet straight down to the rocks and driftwood.

Occasionally, something in the world of sport actually surpasses expectation. Once in a while, Peggy Lee's wrong; that isn't all there is. In American golf, at least two such places exist. One, as we're reminded each April, is Augusta National, that epitome of a lush, secluded, silent, man-made garden.

Pebble Beach, by contrast, is natural, wild, stark and capricious. That's why it is, perhaps, the ideal U.S. Open venue. In February, at the annual Bing Crosby Pro-Am, Pebble Beach is wet, green, close-cropped and pretty, even if the weather is raw. Now, with high rough and the general brownish tinge of longer grasses, Pebble Beach has the mean look it deserves. "It reminds you of a lot of British Open and Scottish courses. Yup, lotta Scottish golf in this course," said Watson today. "From the 17th tee, for example, all you see is sky and ocean and flat grasses. It's a beautiful blue-gray setting."

For this week's Open the rough is formidable, but, as Craig Stadler said this afternoon, "not as long as your basic Open rough, which is good, because Pebble Beach speaks for itself."

"This course is actually set up fairly," marveled John Mahaffey. "That isn't always the case at the Open. The fairways are excellent. You can nip the ball and spin it."

"The greens aren't real fast yet," said Stadler, "but they'll get there by Thursday . . . This is, basically, an unscorable golf course . . . It doesn't need to be tricked up or protected. If you can keep it in the fairway, you've got a shot at a real good round. If you don't, you're in a lot of trouble."

All in all, the winning score figures to be higher than Lanny Wadkins' six-under-par 282 at the 1977 PGA, when the course was baked and devoid of rough, but lower than Nicklaus' 290 at the '72 Open, when final-round gale winds blew the whole field over par.

Rounds this week should have a compelling internal chemistry because Pebble Beach has such a well-defined personality. As Watson says, "There'll be a lot of birdies early on the first seven holes, and a lot of bad scores late."

The first five holes are completely inland and, by contrast with what follows, bland. The first, third and fourth are all short par-4s of less than 400 yards, the snug fourth being only 325 yards--just a one-iron and a flip wedge; but all punish a shoddy drive severely. The 506-yard par-5 second hole is, for top pros, a gimme birdie hole on the course. "This course has no weak holes, except No. 2," says Watson. Even the notorious 170-yard fifth hole, sarcastically called "the only dogleg par-3 in the world" because the tee shot had to be hooked to avoid trees, has a new tee and now provides a fair shot.

The truth of Pebble Beach begins with the majestic, uphill 515-yard sixth hole that begins in dense, inland woods and culminates in a headlands heaven. In minutes, you've gone from the calm and familiar to a stretch of breathtaking holes that are the heart of this links.

If Augusta has its Amen Corner in the 11th through 13th holes, then Pebble Beach has its Cardiac Cliffs. From the seventh through 10th holes, this Open will almost undoubtedly be decided.

The treacherous, wind-beaten 110-yard seventh sets the tone. Here, the balls start bouncing off rocks into the Pacific. Here, Sam Snead took a putter and deliberately bounced his ball down the hill into the front bunker to avoid an honest shot.

The eighth, ninth and 10th may be the best stretch of hard par-4s on earth. He who comes to the eighth tee without a cushion of previous birdies may well end up wrecked; "Homero Blancos played the first seven holes six under par in '72," recalls Watson, "but he finished the round even par."

The 433-yard eighth is the most visually intimidating hole in America. The uphill tee shot is blind. The second shot must clear a 160-yard gorge that is so deep and beautiful that the only defense is not to look at it. From the green, approaching players look like specks as they swing atop a bluff.

The 467-yard ninth and 424-yard 10th--with their fairways tilting ridiculously toward the cliffs and ocean on the right--are actually tougher holes. They are impossible; the eighth just looks that way.

From the 11th through the 16th, Pebble Beach regains its sanity once more, weaving inland again, but this time offering stern pars, not birdies. Even the 565-yard par-5 14th hole is an honest par.

Finally, comes the signature finish. The 209-yard 17th, into prevailing winds, looks bleak, barren and impossible. Every other hole is esthetically pleasing; the nasty, charmless 17th is, in the best British sense, hideously ugly. Take your bogey, if you're lucky, and shut up, it says.

The 18th is better. Better than what? Better than you think it is. Better than its photographs or its reputation. And its reputation is that it's the best finishing hole on earth. What TV doesn't show is the complete sense of desolation and vulnerablity on the exposed tee. All around you is crashing surf. Between there and home is 548 yards of prehistoric sandstone and tumbled rock. You know the fairway is way over there on the right, but every misguiding instinct in the subconscious is going to pull you left to oblivion. Pros say this might be the most difficult shot to align properly in all of golf.

The man who comes to this 72nd hole on Sunday, and survives it for victory, will, in the truest sense, be the U.S. Open champion, because he will have won his nation's title on the course that may be his country's most beautiful, and thorough, test.