SAN FRANCISCO -- On the first day of the U.S. Open, you see who's already lost, not who's winning. Every year, half of the serious contenders shove themselves to the brink of possibility on Thursday. Jitters and their histories of failure at golf's most torturous event send them home.

Seve Ballesteros arrives each June full of brave hopes and tight nerves. The world's most gifted golfer really ought to win the Open once; and, at 30, Ballesteros knows it. Yet, every year he shoots one of those ugly rounds that dooms a player before he's begun.

"I usually shoot 74 or 75. In the first round of the Open, I am about a four-handicapper," Ballesteros said ruefully Thursday. "I am very pleased with 68. This is my best start ever."

For once, Ballesteros is not among the critically wounded. Heck, in 1980 he even managed to miss his first-round tee time by less than a minute and was disqualified from the whole event. Now, he's a mere stroke behind leader Ben Crenshaw and securely in the hunt.

Leave it to Payne Stewart, Tom Kite, Fuzzy Zoeller, Lanny Wadkins, Lee Trevino, Andy Bean, Paul Azinger and Hale Irwin to figure out how they got themselves six or more shots in arrears. Let Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Craig Stadler, Fred Couples and John Mahaffey, all at 72, worry about making the cut.

For once, Ballesteros can dream about an offensive game plan, not worry about finding a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Except for one fleeting day at Oakmont, he's never been in such a spot in a career that includes two Masters victories and two at the British Open.

Few players of obvious historic skill have been so ill-equipped for one event as Ballesteros is for the U.S. Open. His game seems created to fail here. Maybe Lee Trevino's inability to cope with Augusta National's length, elevated greens and dogleg-left holes is the only contemporary parallel.

First, the Open demands accuracy off the tee, and that is Ballesteros' weakest suit. He is titanically long but almost always erratic.

"I hit seven fairways today," he said with self-mockery. "That is very good for me." Only on the 18th hole did he gear down to a 1-iron, but four times he chose his 3-wood.

Perhaps no player in the history of the sport has created recovery shots as imaginatively as Ballesteros. He ignores tree roots, hardpan, pine needles, creek beds and parking lots. Only one thing stops him -- high rough. No human can create in four-inch rough. And that's what the Open has everywhere.

From rough, there is no thinking, just slashing. From greenside, you play a blast like a bunker shot. So, suddenly, Ballesteros' imagination is useless. He's reduced to the inherent caprice of grass explosions. No man knows exactly where such shots will end.

Finally, the Open effectively removes aggressive putting for any ball above the hole. You can only attack uphill. Thus, Ballesteros' marvelous touch is partially denied since even he cannot truly try to sink downhill putts here.

Ballesteros' round Thursday morning was a perfect illustration of how brutally difficult this event always will be for him, how close he'll always tightrope to disaster and what a marvelous feat it will be if he ever wins an Open.

At the first hole, Ballesteros went from rough to rough to bunker, then had to get up and down from 60 yards, sinking a 30-foot putt, just for a par 5. "And that is the easiest hole on the course," he said, laughing. "To make bogey there would be a pain in the ear."

By the sixth tee, Seve had been in the spinach or the sand a total of nine times. Basically, he hadn't hit anything he had aimed at. Yet he was even par, thanks to three gutty saves.

"Don't worry. I start playing better from there on," he said. "As you get older, you learn that sometimes you have to wait. Maybe you remember how to play in the middle of the round."

The Spaniard still didn't remember terribly well. On the back nine, he had three more dramatic saves of par from serious trouble and chipped in at the 13th for birdie. In all, he hit only half of the 18 greens in regulation and needed just 25 putts. Could he work such magic every day?

"No difficult putts all day," he said. "Everything uphill."

Though he never mentions it, Ballesteros knows all his disadvantages. "I must be very careful, very patient. This is my thought," he said. And very modest. For instance, Ballesteros calls the 609-yard par-5 16th hole "my par-6 hole. I get my six there so I don't feel I made any bogeys today."

It sometimes is said Ballesteros chokes at the Open and the PGA, another major played under conditions very similar to these. That may be a question of perception. Just as Ballesteros should be held to a high standard at Augusta, a course perfectly suited to him, so perhaps should he be greatly forgiven here.

It has been an act of will, and maturity, for him to acknowledge the stature of this event despite the fact the cards are stacked against his ever winning it. "It is my No. 1 target, the most important for me," he has said flatly.

Does it matter so much to him because of his bitter feuds with the PGA Tour and Commissioner Deane Beman. "No," said Ballesteros, "because it is the U.S. Open."

Asked if he would take three more 68s this week, Ballesteros said, "I'll take three 70s. How about that? I think it would be very close {to winning}."

For years, Ballesteros has been one of golf's most charismatic and, when he is in the mood, charming and amusing personalities. When sour, he also has been one of its more childish pouters. His fresh attitude toward the U.S. Open, acknowledging both its importance and its inherent difficulty for him, is a sign of growth and a first step toward challenging in this most alien of golf environments.

As we watch Ballesteros struggle with the Olympic Club this week, it is only fair that we see his disadvantages clearly. Under Open conditions, he is a great fighter doing battle with one hand tied behind him. Everywhere else on earth, he may be a living legend in his game, a master of shots no one else possesses. Here, most of those shots are locked in his bag, and he is an underdog who must battle his heart out to have any chance at all.