As the storm was playing through the U.S. Open this afternoon, Jack Nicklaus exchanged gossip at his locker. Nearby, Ben Crenshaw and Jerry Pate compared swings with imaginary clubs; Ray Floyd puttered with his putter. The most contented man in the clubhouse just then was sitting near the top of the stairway, which happened to be a neat bit of symbolism.

Everybody eager to be near the familiar faces of golf had to excuse themselves as they all but stumbled over the player striking the ball as well as anyone until Calvin Peete walked off the course at nightfall. It mattered not at all to Joey Rassett that he was near the top of the Open but that the masses hardly noticed. He just wants to turn a few important heads at a time his way.

Rassett is an engaging 23-year-old who would have been tickled simply to make the cut. As a rookie denting dratted dimples for more than friendly nassaus, he treats almost anything good as both a thrill and a learning experience. That four-birdie, two-bogey round that got him a piece of the second-round lead was lots of both.

So he took the giddy attitude you would expect under such circumstances, saying while a smile split the cutest face on tour: "I'm gonna have some fun."

Fun is finding a decent second shot after hitting the first one indecently, as Rassett had done on the par-3 eighth hole. Sent it sailing over a television truck is what he'd done to his tee ball with a two-iron.

He figured it might have stopped just short of the Ohio border.

Turned out Rassett found it resting in a puffy place, anxious to dart through that convenient opening to the green. He hit the ball three feet from the cup and saved par.

That kept him even par for the day and one over for the tournament. That gets a fellow recognized midway through Round 2 at the Open. And sure enough, as he was striding down the 10th fairway Rassett saw R-A-S-S-E-T-T being formed in large black letters on a leader board.

Hot damn!

He tried to keep his heart under control--and succeeded.

"Kept trying for more birdies," he said. "The swing was there. Everything was just right."

Sure was. He made birdie from six feet at the par-5 12th hole, then sailed a six-iron shot to the same distance on the par-3 13th and sank that putt. His putter saved him at the 16th hole and he flew a nine-iron shot to within a foot and also scrambled for par at the 18th.

That forced him into what he called a situation scarier than any shot he'd hit in his life--his first major press conference. The poor kid fumbled with the microphone, seeing machetes instead of pens, assuming the worst, that some tiger scribe would hop up and claw his game to shreds.

Came the first few tabby-cat questions and he could play himself in under par.

Rassett hit the tour running. At Tucson, his first pro tournament, he shot 67-64 and was a stroke out of the lead after two rounds. This life was a cinch. Top few first time out. Bring on the condo contracts. Then he rediscovered golf's familiar folly.

"I was the one who kinda backed up," he said.

Big dreams; little realities.

Rassett finished tied for 35th, winning $1,324.50.

He missed several cuts. And was humbled in other ways. At Bay Hill, the starter introduced "Gil Morgan, leading money winner on tour . . . Jack Nicklaus, winner of 69 PGA tournaments . . . Joey Rassett." That was it. Joey Rassett. Nothing more. You even earn intros on the pro tour.

"That (being paired with Morgan and Nicklaus) was the worst in terms of being nervous," he said. "I shot 78-76. Believe it or not, my first shot was the farthest I've ever hit. It went through the fairway, through the rough and ended up against a damn tree."

Before the Open, Rassett had missed the cut eight times in 17 tournaments and won $20,330.01. Ties for 19th, 21st and 21st in one stretch convinced him he belongs with the best.

"All I ask for is some respect," he said. "It's such a competitive business it's tough to develop close friendships. But Fuzzy (Zoeller) gives me the time of day. I'm kind of like him. You've got to take all the bounces in stride."

Rassett cares enough about his craft to have gone to some trouble to see a a blow-by-historic-blow film of Johnny Miller's 63 here in the '73 Open. It shot Miller's career into orbit; perhaps this Open will be kind to Rassett, he reasons.

He was second low amateur in the '79 Open and low amateur two years later. Playing the European tour, making about as much as he spent, Rassett missed last year's Open. His best show was in Madrid, where he finished a few places, and lots of shots, behind Seve Ballesteros.

While he was having the time of his life today, his playing partners were suffering. Isn't having to tolerate the miseries of others distracting? Can't it affect your own game?

"You're so up for the Open anyway, you're aware of what they're doing," he said, "but not of what they're scoring. I knew I could be under par if I played smart."

And got a few fine lies in the rough.

"Deep down," he said, "I believe I can win. But my goal was top 15, because that would get me exempt next year."

His smile widened.

"Don't know how well I'm gonna sleep tonight," he said.