In search of the perfect golf swing, I once saw a man six-putt. The green was typical of those on public pastures, neither especially large nor undulating, and I watched in horror as the poor fellow bumped the ball within five feet after four blows. He missed the hole completely with his fifth putt but sank the tap-in, calmly and unemotionally, as though such catastrophe were rather common.

A friend once gouged a short-iron from fairly tame rough, and the ball hopped up and struck him in the eye. I know a woman overjoyed at finally being able to hit the ball far enough to lose it. To humble hackers about to stalk off the course in humiliation, my solace always has been: "There's someone out here worse than you."

Truth is, shooters more crooked than most minds dare imagine stalk our courses.

There may well be no middle-aged man in America more inept than Angelo Spagnolo of Fayette City, Pa., who once lost 13 balls while shooting a smooth 161 and carries a handicap of 56. Or perhaps Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gonzalez Jr., currently stationed in West Germany, is even sorrier. Nine witnesses verified he once struck the ball 11 straight times -- and advanced it a total of four yards.

If golf is punishment for man's sins, as James Reston argues, lots of us enjoy being flogged. How much is becoming evident by the enthusiasm for Golf Digest's pursuit of America's worst avid golfer. The list has been whittled to a dangerous dozen, with Spagnolo and Gonzalez still in contention.

The idea is to determine the epitome of awful, the Ben Hogan of bumbling in an enormous golfing population. Contestants had to be male, between 35 and 55 years of age, with no physical handicaps. They also had to play a minimum of 21 rounds a year and carry an attested handicap of at least 36. And be good sports about being bad.

This being no one-shot deal, decent players who sometimes have bounced balls off tee markers and trees, humans and other animals, whose infrequent mistakes have sailed into hotel rooms, through windows of moving cars and onto ladies' laps, had no chance. Whiffing wouldn't do it either, unless that happened enough during a round to create a draft.

An acquaintance of newspaper pal Dan Foster might have qualified had the contest been held a few years ago. Still smarting from the setback after being eliminated in the last flight of the club championship, the man moaned: "What could I do? The guy threw a 106 at me. Went bogey-bogey right out of the blocks."

A former Redskin who shall remain anonymous reportedly arrived late for a celebrity tournament several years back. Quickly, he was given clubs, a glove and six balls. He proceeded to lose the balls on the front nine. Restocked, he was about to shoot toward a par-3 over water when one of his partners charitably suggested he use an old ball.

Said the otherwise exceptional athlete: "I've never had an old golf ball."

Before settling in among the mediocre, I had possibilities for immortality among the most gross. Reporters who cover the Masters are allowed on Augusta National once in their lives the day after the tournament; my turn came the morning after Ray Floyd tied the 72-hole record of 17 under par in 1976. Same tee boxes; same pin placements.

The third hole is a short par-4. I was on the green in two, and off the green in three. On the fifth fairway, I asked the caddy what club to use and he half-snarled: "Use the three-wood. You can't hit the damn thing anyway." So sad was progress that, yards off the sixth green, my friend Ira Miller said:

"We're playing this course and we can't get inside the ropes."

Golf history is dotted with the dreadful. At a club in Kent, England, a foul drive off the first tee whistled through the window of the pro shop and ended in a cup of tea the pro was about to sip. Another Englishman holed out his tee ball in the chimney of a house 120 yards away and 40 yards out of bounds.

Golf Digest wants only the terminally terrible.

Which means that all Ray Walker of Lake City, Fla., can hope for now is inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records for highest score on one hole. He dumped 327 straight balls into the drink on the infamous 132-yard 17th hole at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass, Fla. With all the penalty strokes, Walker was hitting 655 when he finally gave up and carded an X.

Winston Snider of Virginia Beach sometimes hits shots right-handed and sometimes hits shots left-handed in the same round. Both ways, he is consistently lousy enough to have made the final 12. So did Marc Platau of McKee City, N.J., whose golf swing resembles his slap-shot technique as a college hockey player.

The four players Golf Digest judges most pitiful will play off June 19 at Sawgrass. The date was chosen, in part, said associate editor Bob Carney, "because it was the closest we could get to the longest day of the year."

A problem for such a gimmick as Worstest is that anyone who really wants to win the distinction can. When you're, say, an honest 145-shooter and figure it'll take 178 to assure wealth and fame in defeat, who's to argue that a few dozen balls weren't shanked into the water at 17 on purpose?

But golf prides itself on integrity.

"And on the male ego," an editorial assistant said.

These poor fellows haven't worked all this time at being klutzy. It just seems that way.