The heroic and the realistic modes do battle constantly in sports. Those like Greg Norman who prefer bravery to strategy and risk to control seldom fully understand guys like little Tom Kite, who has 20/480 vision and Olive Oyl biceps.

When they lose to such folks, they curse the fates and the golf course. On the other hand, the careful, consistent Kites of sport often find it hard to summon their courage to take the chances necessary for great victories.

Last week's Kemper Open was just such a confrontation, pitting Norman's pursuit of athletic possibility against Kite's attempt to keep human frailty in check. From the moment both men shot 64 in the opening round, each knew who he had to beat. Each also knew who was on native ground. Kite found the Tournament Players Club at Avenel to be "neat" -- that's to say, cerebral -- while Norman called it "jerky" -- that's to say, confining and penal.

Some golf courses, especially the greatest, demand an integrated athletic style that blends heroic gifts with a judicious temperament. Augusta National and Pebble Beach are perfect examples. You can't win on either course without attempting the spectacular. But you also can't win unless you've figured out what risks are most likely to injure someone with your flaws.

In recent years, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and (when he's in a state of grace) Seve Ballesteros have shown the best ability to marry the two sides of the game. When Ballesteros began mixing in 1-iron tee shots at Augusta and the Opens, he became very dangerous.

Other courses make more lopsided demands. Congressional, like Firestone South, demands the Bunyanesque and asks little subtlety. Just wear out that driver and 4-iron. Smoke it and find it. Avenel, like the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra, Fla., appears to be more concerned with what Kite called "playing chess."

Kite figured to win at Avenel. After 62 holes, he led Norman by one shot. Then, for the second straight day, Norman went for the flag at No. 9 -- the definition of a foolish gamble -- and made another Rock Run double bogey. That mistake forced others; gambling to catch up, Norman crapped out with another creek double bogey at No. 12.

Perhaps the hidden drama in the Kemper was that Kite and Norman seemed to sense the need to learn from each other. Of our recent strategic players, none has had more trouble stepping up to the heroic plane than Kite. And of heroic stars, none has had more trouble learning realism than Norman.

That's why, at ages 37 and 32, they only have one major title between them. That is also why both should be worth study at The Olympic Club in the U.S. Open next week. Kite is learning bravery, at last, while, to a lesser degree, Norman may finally be aware that his judgement must improve.

First, let's consider Kite. By the end of this season, he may be the No. 3 money winner in golf history. That's distorted by huge modern purses, but it's still a stunning measure of Kite's place in his generation. In the early '70s, Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin, Ben Crenshaw, Johnny Miller, Hubert Green, Bruce Lietzke, Craig Stadler, Larry Nelson and Andy Bean all came along. Kite's cash ($3,244,074) has outdistanced them all, except Watson. Yet Kite has seldom contended in majors (except for the Masters), much less won one.

Kite has never been able to put the crown on his own head with the great shot at the ideal moment. Still, he's picked up lessons along the way. "Hubert Green and I tried to figure out how we could win the Masters despite hitting wedges into so many par-5s that the big guys reach in two," said Kite. "Hubert said, 'Sooner or later, you have to beat 'em on the hard holes. You just have to pick your spots.' So, Hubert always went right at the pin at No. 11 {the only hole so scary Ben Hogan aimed to the right of the green}."

On Sunday, Kite picked his spot perfectly. Leading by two shots, he decided not to play safe at the chancy, 454-yard 12th hole. "I'm basically conservative. But at times, you feel good over it and you just have to say, 'Let's go get 'em.' " Kite blanketed the stick, made birdie, got excited, eagled the next hole with a 40-foot putt and waltzed home a seven-shot winner, the biggest victory margin on the PGA Tour this year.

At Olympic, Norman figures to find a course that's more like Avenel than Congressional. He can't repeat his basic Washington mistake. Four holes at Avenel have obvious watery danger and caused the most double bogeys for the Kemper field -- Nos. 4, 9, 10 and 12. Norman went at them hellbent and was over par for the week on each (six over par in all). Kite played cautiously on those holes and was three under par.

Norman studies a course for birdies and eagles. He'd be wiser to analyze it for potential birdies and double bogeys. When will he stop trying for 375-yard downhill tee shots at No. 10 at the Masters? Every year, he gets a double bogey in the woods there, if not two. Yes, it may be the most dramatic tee shot anywhere, with that plunging dogleg and 100 yards of roll rewarding the perfect monster draw. But Norman just can't pull it off frequently enough. And he won't admit it.

If Kite can discover a dash of the heroic in himself, it may not be too late for him to add a major title as the capstone to an almost great career.

If Norman can unearth some of Kite's tactical modesty on those few holes on every course that just don't suit him, he might yet harness his great engine of a game. Then, golf would have a truly dominant star for what's left of the 1980s.