Dead center on the practice green late today, where contenders and pretenders were seeking a stroke that would let them survive the U.S. Open this week, golf's enduring enigma was holding a modest press conference. Putts broke left and right of him; Lanny Wadkins scowled. Tom Weiskopf held court through it all.

"Started the year on a high note," he said. "Played well at Augusta, except for a few holes. Since then, life's been hard for me. But I got it straightened out, I think."

Even Weiskopf can never be sure.

In four tournaments he had entered, including the Kemper at Congressional two weeks ago, Weiskopf either withdrew after an early round or stiffed players who had paid as much as $2,000 specifically to play with him during the pro-ams.

"I probably knew I wasn't going to finish the (Kemper pro-am) round before I teed off, to tell you the truth," he said. "I was just that upset about something, and nine holes was about all I could take. Had nothing to do with my pro-am partners."

Weiskopf wants to play Kemper again, and would be glad to rejoin for an entire round the amateurs he left, presumably slack-jawed, on the ninth fairway. If they still care. No, he said, although considerable pressure was put on Commissioner Deane Beman, there was no fine for that about-face to the clubhouse.

"We talked it over," Weiskopf said. "And as far as he was concerned, what he heard from me was sufficient reason for only playing nine holes in the pro-am and not playing in the golf tournament. I felt at the time I wasn't giving those guys their just dues, so I felt it would be far better for them to get another player who would give 'em some fun for at least nine holes. A golf tip or two.

"I didn't mistreat 'em; I just didn't talk to 'em. But there's a lotta guys who do that every pro-am day. So I felt what I did probably was the right thing to do, because I didn't want to do it the next day and walk off in the middle of the tournament."

With an 80, Weiskopf withdrew after the first round of the Memorial Tournament the week before Kemper. But the host, Jack Nicklaus, has gone out of his way to be gracious to Weiskopf before the Open this week. Still, when Weiskopf was tardy for their tee time for a practice round today, Nicklaus muttered: "If I can't get him to play in my tournament, how am I gonna get him here on time?"

Later, Weiskopf was charming and contrite after blowing his tee shots all over Pebble Beach--and losing a dinner when Nicklaus made an eagle three at the wondrous 18th (driver, one-iron, 45-foot putt, for concerned hackers). Sorry, he kept saying, but that's me.

Why had he not played in the pro-am at Bay Hill?

"Hung over."

So the story is true after all?

"Yep."

That's the one where his drinking partner bumped into him at the course the next day and inquired how they had gotten home a few hours earlier. We pick up the dialogue with Weiskopf saying:

"You don't remember the pickup truck?"

"Front or back?"

"Back."

As a gentleman and a golfer, Nicklaus always seems to one-up on Weiskopf, even when that matters only a little bit. Today, Weiskopf boasted he could make eagle when both got to their second shots, but his three-wood missed clearing the front trap by a foot or so.

He's been the foil for Nicklaus for ever so long.

"When I went to school (Ohio State)," he said, "I didn't know a damned thing about playing golf. And then I ran into this guy (Nicklaus) . . . He was the person that I just idolized, who I wanted to play like. He's the reason I practiced so hard, because I wanted to play better than him. Then I could.

"But the thing is"--here came an ironic laugh--"I could never think like him. On the golf course, the guy has something nobody else has. It's a combination of a lot of things, I'm sure, but whatever in hell it is, I could never think like him.

"When I was the best player (on tour) in '73, it just happened. I mean, it just happened. I won a couple tournaments, got some confidence and, shoot, it was easy. It was a snap. But he's always been that way. I've tried to be that way over the years, but I can't do it again. He does that every year.

"That's the thing that frustrates me the most, that I cannot achieve what I once achieved. I shouldn't say can't. Haven't been able would be better. See, Nicklaus would never talk like that."

Weiskopf's record in the Open is admirable, but he has never won.

"I'm one of three guys to hold low round in the Open (63 in '80) and not to win (he finished second, to Nicklaus). I have some great records, and I think about these things, I want you to know. So it's harder when I'm reminded of 'em."

No sooner had a request for an illustration of Nicklaus' superior attitude been made than two were strolling off Weiskopf's lips:

"Same round during a Ryder Cup. What you have to remember, first off, is that Nicklaus always does everything himself on the course. Yardage; clubs. All Angie (Argea) ever did was tote the bag. So he's got about a six-foot putt for bird, and he asks me for the line.

"I tell him it goes slightly left, for him to split the hole, half the ball out and half in, and he agrees. And hits it great, only it defies gravity, lips around and ends up halfway around the cup on the other side. He says to me on the next tee, with that hard, ice-blue look: 'I made it; it just didn't go in.'

"Later, we're both about the same distance from the hole, me just inside him, and he calls me over and says: 'Pick up your coin (marker).' I say. 'I can't do that.' He says go ahead, tells me: 'I've got it.' I pick it up and he hardly looks (at the line).

"In it goes."

Weiskopf sighs and says his wife, Jeanne, has him figured.

"She says, 'Tom, you always do what you have to do,' " he said. "Maybe my problem all along is that I don't know myself."

He knows the shots still are there. He hopes the will still is.

"Some people have speculated," he said, "that my problems are that I'm going to retire. Couldn't be more wrong." He laughed: "A lotta bills I have to pay; a lotta bridges I have to burn."