Golf does not offer a greater treat, a more elevated level of expectation and excitement, than exists before a U.S. Open at the Pebble Beach Golf Links.

This splendid joining of the world's most prestigious golf event and America's most spectacularly picturesque course has only happened once before, in 1972 when Jack Nicklaus won his third of four Opens. The rarity of such a combination of the Open's inherent drama and Pebble Beach's splendor-strewn stage has only redoubled the sense of electricity here.

That's why, on the eve of Thursday's first round of the 82nd Open, this Monterey Peninsula is as alive with noise and chatter as a Pacific rock covered with arguing seals and seagulls.

The dispute here isn't over fishing rights or squatting territory. It's a weeklong debate over whether this elegant golfing prize will fall into the hands of Craig Stadler, Tom Watson, Ray Floyd or Nicklaus. Perhaps not since the '60s days of the Nicklaus-Gary Player-Arnold Palmer Big Three has an event of such stature had such a compact and dramatic list of definite favorites.

Stadler, the PGA Tour's leading money winner ($312,058), not only captured this season's only major by winning the Masters in a playoff, but also won his last tournament--the Kemper Open at Congressional--by seven shots.

In addition, Stadler, a San Diegan, has played this course more than 100 times in various national and California competitions. Stadler loves the course, finished second in the Crosby here this spring and says "Pebble suits my game very well." As if the Walrus needed any more aid, he's recently rediscovered his normal left-to-right iron game. "I'm back to hitting the way I'd prefer."

Watson, who has finished in the top nine in the Open six times in the last eight years, but never won or even been runner-up, wants this title desperately to confirm his place in the lasting lore of the game. Watson won the Crosby here in '77 and '78 and arrives with a pair of '82 victories and the No. 3 spot on the money list.

Watson is rested and, with the rough this week slightly less brutal than at most Opens, hopes his occasional quick-swing hooks off the tee won't ruin him as they have in the past. "I want to win the Open very badly," he said Tuesday, "but it hasn't reached the critical stage. I still think I have quite a few good years left." Watson, who at 32 no longer dominates the tour as he did in '77, '78, '79 and '80, will have few better chances.

The streaky Floyd is simply the hottest player on tour; he's won his last two tournaments--Memphis and Muirfield--after barely losing in a playoff in Atlanta. This tempo and feel player is so "on" that he said today, "I don't see the need for practice." Floyd, who's won the Masters and PGA, has matured as a competitor in the past two years, finishing second on the money list in '81 and standing in that position in '82.

On one hand, George Burns, who's played with Watson and Floyd in their practice rounds the last two days, says, "Ray has been awesome. He hasn't missed a fairway by more than a yard or two in 36 holes. Tom has been almost as sharp off the tee. They're both ready." On the other hand, Floyd has an awful Open record, never even getting into the heat of an Open hunt. His pattern is to shoot a good fourth round to salvage a respectable finish.

Nicklaus, trying to become the first man ever to win five Opens, already has the best overall Open record in history. While Floyd, for example, hasn't been in the top 11 in the past 11 years, Nicklaus has never been out of the top 11 in that period.

Nicklaus also is in command at Pebble Beach, having won the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open and three Crosbys here. "Can't think of many courses where I've done better," he said, grinning, today. "But then, I couldn't think of a better place (for me) than Merion last year . . . I've always liked Pebble . . . Marvelous course on a marvelous piece of property . . . makes you think, as well as play golf. Right now, not many fellows have a chance to win. Last year at Merion, maybe 50 or 60 could have won. Here, maybe 15."

Finally, Nicklaus has finished 1-11-3 in his last three events. "I'm playing fairly well. Considerably better now than at Kemper where, except for eight holes, I didn't really play well at all. I hadn't driven the ball that badly in a long time." Nicklaus even likes the fact that the greens here are bumpy. "That may equalize everybody's putting, to a degree, and give an advantage to a player who hits a lot of greens, but is an average putter. Now, I'd put myself back more into the average (putting) group," said Nicklaus, who, for two years, has led the tour in hitting greens in regulation.

One twist is that Nicklaus, usually an ardent practicer and fiddler before majors, couldn't get out of numerous course-building and exhibition-playing commitments. "I traveled 12,000 miles last week . . . from Washington to Palm Beach (Fla.) to Denver to Park City to Phoenix to Bear Creek (Cal.) to Pebble Beach to Salt Lake City to Grand Rapids to Palm Beach and back to Pebble Beach. Nothing exciting," deadpanned Nicklaus. "Just the proper way to prepare for the Open . . . Actually, it may prove better than staying home, practicing and worrying."

Las Vegas oddsmakers agree that these four are the clearest choices, making Stadler 3-1, Watson and Floyd 5-2 and Nicklaus 5-1. Of course, Vegas shouldn't be trusted very far; Wayne Levi is a 25-1 shot and he isn't even entered here.

To be sure, at least 20 other players would be included in any sensible list of players with a chance. David Graham ('81), Hale Irwin ('79-'74), Jerry Pate ('76), Johnny Miller ('73) and Lee Trevino ('71-'68) have all won Opens in the last dozen years and are still at, or near, their peaks.

Other Open champs in the field of 153 include Andy North, Hubert Green, Lou Graham and Player; none is given much chance here.

Perhaps the Open's leading characteristic is the way it seems to bring out the best in the same players year after year while demoralizing the same players annually. Tom Weiskopf, for instance, has six top 10 finishes in the last 10 years, including five in the top five (the most of anyone). On the other hand, fine players like Tom Kite, Bruce Lietzke, Gil Morgan, Lanny Wadkins, Andy Bean and George Burns have horrific Open records.

"It's the sense of restriction off the tee that gets a lot of us," says Burns.

"You must either be very accurate off the tee, or you must be so long that the irons you're hitting out of rough are short irons," says Morgan. "Also, you must be a great chipper from (greenside) rough and a great fast-greens putter . . . If you lack any of those skills, you won't enjoy the Open much."

One man, and his family, however, are certain to enjoy this Open. Gary Player and his 20-year-old son Wayne will become the first father and son pair to play in the same Open. Both played in the '79 British Open.

Then, Player thought the scoreboard was wrong when, at one point, he saw "Player: two under par."

"I'm only even par," said Player.

"That's not you. That's Wayne," a caddy told Player.

"This week, I tell him to use the old five-wood," said the senior Player, tapping his head and winking.

"And I'll tell him not to be so mechanical," retorts Wayne Player.

Added the older Player, "I think I've lost my wife . . . For years, she used to follow me around the course in the big tournaments and agonize with me over the turns of fortune. I asked her, 'Who are you going to follow this week?' She didn't answer, but I'm afraid I've gotten the message."