The best golf, and the most incredible golf, in yesterday's first round of the Kemper Open at Congressional Country Club was played by two famous gentlemen in the same group: two-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin and two-time Kemper winner Craig Stadler.

Irwin, fresh from a victory four days ago at Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament, played so superbly that he had five birdie putts of less than a pace in length during a 31-35 -- 66 round that gave him a two-shot lead.

"Guess I'll just go back to the motel and listen to that elevator next to my room go up and down all night," said Irwin, who's won 17 Tour titles in 18 years but never two in a row. "Between that elevator and the ice machine, I was awake more than I slept last night."

Irwin probably won't lose too much sleep when he sees the four players tied for second place at 68. George Archer, Barry Jaeckel, David Lundstrom and Peter Oosterhuis have won a total of one golf tournament in the United States in this decade.

However, Irwin might toss restlessly when he thinks about the round of 69 he watched Stadler manufacture this day. The Walrus has been runner-up four times already this season.

"It's just a matter of time till I win," he said Wednesday.

Yesterday it looked like it might be just a matter of time until Stadler reached the breaking point as he hit balls into the rough, over galleries, over greens, into adjacent fairways, into bunkers and off one fence. A scratch golfer, playing Stadler's 18 tee balls, might have shot 90.

Instead, Stadler was part of a 10-way mob scene at three-under par that included '80 Kemper champ John Mahaffey ("back again") and Andy Bean.

"It was something to behold," Irwin said of Stadler's madcap scrambling.

Stadler had 14 one-putts, a chip-in and a total of 21 putts: one of the lower totals in golf history. "Gotta be pretty damn close to the record, doesn't it?" Stadler said with a laugh, describing his round as "terrible . . . in fact, awful."

On his final nine holes (the front), Stadler had eight putts. "It was comical," he said. "I hit it everywhere and I was catching Hale . . .

"Just a real solid 69 . . . You gotta enjoy a round like this . . . One guess where I'm going," said Stadler, heading for practice-range penance.

Since only one club in Stadler's bag was truly haywire -- his berserk bazooka of a driver -- and since he always has owned this track, winning by six and seven strokes in his '81 and '82 routes, his 69 may prove significant.

Many another sub-par round here meant little. Mean ol' Congressional seldom has been played more timidly as 39 golfers broke par on a mild day when a south wind made several hard holes play mercifully. Near-perfect fairway and green conditions, plus greens softened by Wednesday rains, also helped scores.

Jaeckel, who lost in a five-way playoff here in 1983, has a history of playing well here, but Archer, 45, is a new and welcome face to the leaderboard. After back surgery, he won $207,543 last season.

"Those airplane seats bother me more than anything," said Archer, who is 6 feet 6. "Maybe I ought to buy a coffin and just ship myself from town to town."

Much in the hunt were top '85 money winners CurtisStrange (one of eight players at 70) and Lanny Wadkins (one of 16 at 71). By contrast with this day's birdie onslaught, only eight players broke par in last year's first round.

Defending champion Greg Norman continued his nondescript play of '85 with a 38-35 -- 73 and '83 champ Fred Couples endured a 79, a score that beat only six players in the field of 156.

"The cut scores are so low this year that it's ridiculous," said Irwin, contemplating the possibility that one-over-par 145 might be the cut here. "It's a case of follow-the-leader. I wish these young guys would slow up. I'm too old for this. I can't pedal this fast."

Actually, Irwin has been pedaling quite nicely since rediscovering his