By the end of the decade, it's likely that the Tournament Players Championship will have taken its place as one of the preeminent events in golf.

That is, it will if the players don't get their hands on the Players.

Commissioner Deane Beman and architect Pete Dye have had an ambitious and innovative idea here. It would be a shame if the pros tarnished it. After only two years at the Players Club, this tournament is the best spectator event in golf.

No American tournament, certainly not the Masters or Open, can approach the Players for offering the paying customer a dugout view of the action.

Beman's concept of stadium golf is a stunning success here. Before the Players Club was built, golf was the worst of all sports to watch in person. Standing on tiptoe in the sixth row of a gallery, then jumping ahead two holes to stake out a decent seat is not entertainment.

Here, every fan, with a bit of effort, can have a dream seat for any shot.

When Hal Sutton punched his eight-iron shot to within inches of the flagstick at the island 17th Monday for the final birdie of his victory, thousands of fans had an ideal view, while thousands more perches went begging.

When John Cook, tied for the lead, hooked his drive into the lake beside the 18th hole, a mountain of people were looking over his shoulder.

The PGA Tour appears dedicated to making the thousand-and-one cosmetic and landscaping touches that can eventually make the Players a visual treat almost the equal of Augusta and Cypress Point. Let's not get carried away; a swamp is never going to be as pretty as the Georgia pine woods in the spring or the Monterey Penninsula; Magnolia Lane and Pebble Beach are safe from Rattlesnake Road.

Finally, to turn a stadium in a swamp into a venue for visceral excitement, Beman brought in Dye, the sport's most daring and controversial architect. Beman asked for a golf course that would do for golf what the 200-m.p.h. crash did for auto racing.

In short, Beman and Dye wanted a course that, on every stroke, demanded a shot that only a professional, playing his best, could be expected to make. All margin for amateurish error was eliminated, thus creating a course with a fearsome aspect. The average sports fan, seeing the Players Club, finally realizes what all the fuss over Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson is about.

Oh, that's what these guys can do.

Nicklaus said, sarcastically, that playing here was like trying to land four-iron shots on the roofs of cars. What you don't realize until you see the Players Club is that he is just barely exaggerating. To make birdie here, you must often land a 200-yard shot on a spot smaller than a car; otherwise, you Dye.

But the vast majority of the pros here were, as hard as it is to believe, insulted by this opportunity to show their great gifts. The mental strain, the emotional wear and tear, don't you know. They'd rather play the Hartford Open and spend four days making 15-foot straight-in birdie putts.

Just as in '82, the pros' first act after this tournament was to start a petition imploring Beman and Dye to consult them on changes that they'd like to see to make their course fairer (i.e., easier). Nicklaus has been quoted as saying, "A hundred pros can't be wrong."

Oh, yes, they can.

The idea here is to showcase golf at its most creative, its most breathtaking and its most crowd-pleasing, not at its fairest. You can't have all of these qualities together; it's not in the nature of the game. If you make the Players Club a model of fairness, then it will never again have the shimmering aspect of danger that it wore this week.

Player after player used the word "survival." They were right. Their professional dignity was on the line; true humiliation--a round in the 80s--was a possibility. Naturally, they didn't like it. It's enough to make a man sign a foolish petition.

However, Dye has exactly the right idea. "The pros don't like to fight and struggle," he said. "But people love to watch them fight and struggle with it.

"And," Dye said triumphantly, "they win. My only fear was that I'd built a course that nobody could play. It's been a pleasure to find out they can."

That's the point. Last year, a dozen players broke par. This time, nine more performed that feat.

If the tour can keep the Players unique, then it can make a place for itself on the national sports scene and become an event that transcends golf and attracts the interest of the general sports fan, as the Masters and Open (but not the PGA) already do.

However, if the players get a stranglehold on the Players and turn it into an event that suits their own desire for ease of mind and flattered vanity, golf will risk losing a potentially great major event.