We're watching man-bites-dog golf here. The players say this is a fair U.S. Open. Fair! Sporting sages still are in a deep coma, having been taught for as long as they can remember such certainties as Arnie inventing charisma and the USGA standing for Unspeakable Sadists of Golf Association.

Fair! Somebody quick go tell George Archer. He assumed the USGA, as always, would grow rough thick enough to hide Tip O'Neill and plant the flagsticks on the noses of seals in Carmel Bay. Archer plays Pebble Beach very well, but chose not to send in his Open entry this year.

"Couldn't find a stamp," he joked.

He should have.

"The course this week is the same as the Crosby," Jack Nicklaus said. "Not one iota of difference."

Archer tied for 12th in the Crosby, shooting 67 in the final round.

Nicklaus said the USGA has been getting squishy-soft with its Open courses the last three years. He all but clicked his cleats together in joy.

"Baltusrol (in '80) was very fair," he said. "Merion (last year) was very fair; this is very fair. Before, they kinda got carried away, too caught up in preserving almighty par, tricking courses up too much. Players are better; scores are better, and to keep almighty par (in the Open) they'd eventually have eight-yard fairways and no grass on the greens.

"They should reward good golf, not create impossible golf."

Ray Floyd was astonished to find Pebble so vulnerable. He still shot 78 in the first round. Tom Watson called the course today "defenseless." He still couldn't break par. But he gave the USGA its due, saying: "They've done what they said they would with the pins: six easy placements, six tough placements and six medium-tough each day."

To all of this sudden gushing, former USGA president Sandy Tatum, who endured the wrath of closed-minded golfers at Open after Open, threw his head back and laughed.

"Makes you think we did something wrong," he said.

As it should, the USGA is letting the course speak for itself, and nature run its course, this week. And no sooner did the wish for some cashmere-clad illustration of vintage Pebble pop to mind today than George Burns limped off the 18th green.

Georgous George; gorge for George. Or almost at 17, after he awoke from that front-nine fantasy. Pebble doesn't get mad when it gets Burned, it gets even. It lulls you into thinking you actually can play a bit, then blasts you back to reality. Burns is heavenly one nine, a hacker the next.

Unconscious, the reformed former Maryland football player set one Open record with six consecutive birdies and tied another with a front-side 30. Golfers from Horace Rawlins through Hogan and Hagen, Palmer, Nicklaus and every blond beater on tour never have been able to look at an Open leader board and see such a wild under-par progression: 0-1-2-3-4-5-6.

So completely did Burns blank the flag that none of his birdie putts was greater than 10 feet. Two were 18 inches or less. Had his putter been just a wee bit more greedy from eight feet at the sixth hole, Burns would have made 3. And gone birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie. Seven under for six holes in the Open at Pebble would have been a score for the ages.

"Felt like two different men," he admitted.

Playing legend-like, Burns hit a six-iron to the green on the 467-yard ninth hole. That was because his tee ball struck a cart path and darted along on cruise control for several dozen extra yards. He walked off with a two-putt par, into golf lore and also reality.

He bogeyed 10; he bogeyed 12; he bogeyed 15. Had he not snaked in a 30-footer, Burns would have bogeyed 11. It got worse. He tripled 17, and ended his paradise-to-purgatory trip with a fender-bending 42. What a way to match par for a day: 30-42.

That's Pebble.

"I went birdie-birdie-birdie on seven, eight and nine in the last round of the '72 Open here," said Watson, "and then made 7 at No. 10. Hit it in the sand; hit the next shot in the sand. And the next. Then I hit dry land, got it on the green and two-putted."

Burns' slide might not have been so drastic if his mind had not grinded into reverse. Twice. On the 17th tee and after he disappeared from sight to everyone but sea creatures after that wild one-iron.

The debate with himself on the tee was a hard two-iron or a silky one.

"Tried to get cute," he said. "Normally, what I do in those situations is go with the harder club."

The ball might have been floating toward Honolulu had it not gotten lodged in a vine. Again, Burns tried to get cute. Instead of taking his penalty-drop medicine, Burns took a gouge at the ball. And put it in even worse position. Then the unplayable drop was unavoidable.

"So I'm where I started yesterday," he said, shaking his head. "Even par. And in good shape. I normally play that way (erratically), so it doesn't disturb me that much. I'm glad the 42 wasn't on Sunday. Got my first victory here (the '80 Crosby), so I like the course. And everybody is going to have a bad nine. There's a long way to go."

At Merion a year ago, Burns was the leader after 54 holes with a record 203. Then he shot a three-over 73 on Sunday, and watched in frustration as David Graham played tee-to-green perfection and won by three shots. Burns said he was shot after the second round.

Distractions, such as talking with too many reporters, interrupted his normal practice routine. He said that will not happen this year. Also, he is using softer-shafted clubs, ones that irritate some tender joints less.

"A tough thing to swallow," he said of that loss. He added that "something like today drives you crazy. But as long as I keep sneaking around the lead (until the final round) that'll be okay."

Anyone with just eight pars in 18 holes cannot sneak around at Pebble. For this George Burns, it's either Oh God III, or say good night, Gracie.