So straight is Calvin Peete, so down-the-middle serious, that when he called his round today "very frustrating," everyone who saw it sat stunned.

Would he elaborate?

"A joke, guys," Peete said.

For a good deal of his near-40 years, Peete has been struggling to stay out of life's tough rough. When the U.S. Open was held here 21 years ago, he was peddling cheap jewelry to migrant workers up and down the East Coast; when the Open was held here 10 years ago, he had recently failed to qualify for the PGA Tour; when the final round of this latest Oakmont Open starts Sunday, he will be one shot off the lead.

Sociologists and dramatists are poised for serious history.

Ever since he left the Masters shooting 87-80, Peete has been as quietly efficient as anyone except one of the coleaders here, Seve Ballesteros. His worst finish in four tournaments was a tie for 10th in the Tournament of Champions. He tied for fifth at Sea Pines, tied for seventh at the Memorial and won in Atlanta.

Any time golfers are required to place their tee shots in a walk-in closet 250 yards away and then stop their approach shots on undulating linoleum, Peete has a fine chance for victory. Also, his good-luck charm, the very affable Dolphus (Golf Ball) Hull, is at his side again this week.

Golf Ball (he scarcely answers to anything else) and Peete were together four times last year and won twice, at Pensacola and Williamsburg, and finished in the top 10 the other times; this week's pairing is their first since a second at the Crosby, Golf Ball and his regular swinger, Ray Floyd, having "had a little argument."

To make sure his senses and concentration are as sharp as possible Sunday, Peete is saying this is his best chance in the near future to win an Open. In truth, he would seem a contender in any Open and PGA for years. He is almost never off the fairway off the tee.

"Missed five fairways in three rounds," Golf Ball estimates. "Pretty good. Pretty damn good."

So damn good he's tough to watch.

Bump-bump, tap-tap. Par.

Give or take a bump.

The self-taught swing with which every public-course player on earth identifies and the long face that reflects so many hard times make Peete a compelling companion. Most of the games of his competition here were built by expensive tutors; he was born ineligible to join most of the clubs the tour frequents.

"I was playing golf two years before I saw it on television," Peete said. So he missed Jack and Arnie in their playoff here in '62. Had to scrape a living selling watches and whatever to folks who couldn't afford them. He also passed on watching the Johnny Miller Open in '73.

"I was very disgusted with having missed getting my card," he said. "I was playing some minitour somewhere."

As expected, Peete has hit about 85 percent of the fairways here this week. With a driver off the tee. That's the highest of anyone. If his iron play and putting were close to that, he'd have lapped the field. If the U.S. Golf Association had let him play the 18th hole Friday, he very likely would be tied for the lead.

Friday, Peete was as pure from tee to cup as a man gets. He was four under through 16 holes and had a five-footer do a 270-degree dance around the cup and stay out at 17. It wasn't too dark to play 18, but the USGA had set a time when the storm-interrupted round would end.

So Peete had to rise at 5 this morning and go through his normal practice routine, hoping not to strike the ball more than four times before hopping back into bed. The 18th is not sweet for Peete under the best of circumstances.

On an after-dinner tear Friday, he may well have parred it.

He hooked that prebreakfast tee shot today and made bogey.

There are some dimple-dents in that theory, because he also made bogey at 18 this afternoon, after nearly holing out with a pitching wedge and sinking a 13-inch birdie putt at 17. Some other early impressions of Peete also don't always fit reality.

Yes, he's short off the tee. But his drives still land about where the guys with dock-worker forearms sting a one-iron. Nobody but the pitty-pat hitters can control a driver in the Open. Also, Peete has birdied more very long holes than very short holes.

In the first and third rounds, he strolled through the 462-yard 10th hole in three strokes. He also made birdie on the 469-yard first hole Friday. Of the 15 chances to make birdie on the holes one would assume he should master, the five par-4s under 380 yards, he has made good on just three.

Peete was laughing about his own consistency after a one-under 70 today. "First hole par, second hole par, third hole par, fourth hole par," he giggled. "fifth hole par, sixth hole par . . . "

Tenth hole birdie, when a 35-foot putt jumped in the cup.

Eleventh hole par, 12th hole . . . Oh, you know. Let's skip ahead to the 15th tee, where Peete is about to bore another boring drive down the middle. Suddenly, some commotion catches his ear; he backs off.

And he hooks the ball into foreign turf, a few yards off the fairway.

"No choice but to lay up (about 50 yards from the cup)," he said. Then he pitched to 18 feet and prepared to do battle again with a putter not always friendly. Three of his bogeys this week have been three-putts. He lipped out at least a half a dozen other makable birdie putts.

Peete struck this one so well he was raising his putter aloft before the ball plopped in. Any hacker outside the ropes could have tapped in the bird at 17. He tapped out at 18 again after a three-iron approach leaked right and couldn't escape the combination of steel wool and vice grips the USGA calls rough.

He underplayed the race angle.

"Winning this would be my greatest accomplishment under any circumstances," he said. Then he talked about lessons mastered on his quiet climb in golf.

"I know when to be aggressive, when to be conservative," he said. "I don't feel now that I have to beat (such as Tom Watson and Ballesteros or the other contenders in the final round). They've got to beat me."