SAN FRANCISCO -- The alarm clock went off at 5 o'clock on the morning of May 18 and Keith Clearwater began one of those bleary early morning rationalizations that allow mankind to roll over and go back to sleep for another three hours.

"There'll be a lot more U.S. Opens in my career, so it doesn't really matter if I play this year," thought Clearwater, a 27-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour. "But I'll never win my first pro tournament again. Heck, I should enjoy it. After all, I was up until 2:30 a.m. celebrating."

Clearwater had made his decision. That $108,000 check in his pocket made it easier. "I was going to sleep in and forget about the Open {sectional} qualifying. I was gonna blow it off."

Just how much can a man demand of himself, anyway? On Sunday at the Colonial National Invitation in Fort Worth, Clearwater had shot 64-64 to win at infamous Hogan's Alley. Nobody in golf history ever had a one-day closing 36 holes to match that. The Open qualifying tournament on Monday was at Lost Creek in Fort Worth -- "the worst golf course I've ever seen in my life." Why play 36 more holes? That'd be 72 in 36 hours.

That's when Clearwater's wife Sue started making a footnote for herself in golf history. "A week from now, you'll wish you'd taken the trouble to try to qualify," she said. "You'll be kicking yourself the week of the Open when all the other guys are playing."

So, Clearwater dragged himself to the shower and shot 71-69 to advance to the second round of qualifying. Then, two weeks ago at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, he shot 71-69 again to get into his first Open, back at the Olympic Club where he'd played 50 times growing up and knew the eucalyptus trees and cypress groves by name.

Now, Clearwater holds a share of the Olympic Club course record after a third-round 64 Saturday. In 86 previous Opens, only three men ever shot 63s and four had 64s. Now, Clearwater has as good a chance to win the Open as anybody. He's tied for second with Scott Simpson at 1-under-par 209, one shot behind Tom Watson entering Sunday's final round.

The moral of this story -- get outta bed, ya bum, if ya wanna be somebody -- is a perfect one for the fiercely-determined Mormon, who has endured five years of boiling frustration as he's tried, and always failed, to get on tour and show his many gifts.

Clearwater looks like a superstar, plays like one and thinks he's going to be one. In fact, he thinks he should have been one long ago. All-America at Brigham Young in 1981. Winner of the North and South Amateur in 1982. And a nobody in 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1986, as he failed four times to survive the tour qualifying school.

"It's a lot of work to make $3,000 on the mini-tour," says Clearwater with tight lips. "When you have to produce each month to meet the mortgage payments on a house you've built yourself, that is fairly tough."

Then the injured pride and the thwarted ambition show through the Calvin Klein looks and the cinema-blue eyes. "I played much better the last two years on the {mini} tour, but nobody knew it. You have to golf your ball to win $70,000 in a season like I did."

So, all you silly folks who think that the $193,522 he's won this year, and the $150,000 he might win Sunday, is a big deal, you should have seen him on the podunk Topeka-to-Joplin circuit.

No rookie in years has announced himself as loudly as Clearwater who, before very long, could compete with Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros in golf's drop-dead-handsome sweepstakes. And no rookie has been in such a hurry, or been so hard-pressed, to hide his true feelings. "It took me five tries to get through the qualifying school," he says. "The worst was the last time when I shot 77 the last day and missed getting my playing card by two shots.

"I always knew I'd make it, because I decided I'd never stop trying until I did, whether that was {age} 24 or 40 or 60. Some guys say, 'Well, I'll give it one more year {on the mini-tour}. When you give yourself an out, an excuse, it makes it that much easier to fail."

Much is appealing about Clearwater. He's one of those few people who, asked to define who he is, actually has a crisp, quick answer. "I'm very conservative. I want to win badly. But I want to do it the right way. Walk off the course the same way after an 80 or 65."

Clearwater also has that barely supressed arrogance of the potential champion. He can't imagine being intimidated by playing with any other golfer. "The ball doesn't know Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson is standing next to you." And he sees matters with a long view. Of his 64, which included six birdies and no bogeys, he said, "So many guys have walked away {after great rounds} and shot 78 the next day and nobody remembers them."

Having waited what seems like an eternity to him, he wants to be remembered. "Slow down. Play smart. Don't try to be better than you are," he says of his Sunday plans. "Cutting doglegs and going for every pin, trying to hit perfect, beautiful golf shots isn't the way to make low scores in an Open. I want to go about playing the same mediocre, intelligent shots."

Fortunately, Clearwater realizes that almost no one is immune to Open pressure, especially someone who has felt qualifying-school pressure and blinked. "I don't want to pretend that I'm some giant who's above this big circus of the U.S. Open, looking down on it all," he says. "I'm sure I'll feel it . . . But I also know what I have to do. I'm the kind of player, it's either all good or all bad. Everything's working, or nothing."

In his days at BYU, Clearwater played with Bobby Clampett, Rick Fehr and Richard Zokol, all tour pros for years now. He also knew Danny Ainge, Greg Kite and Fred Roberts -- all members of the Boston Celtics. During those years of galling invisibility, playing in the bush leagues and worrying about losing a house he'd hammered on with his own hands, Clearwater planned for this day when he'd finally get to grab for the brass ring, just as they had.

However, dreaming won't make it so. "You don't create those rounds {of 64} lying in bed," Clearwater says. In his case, you make them because you got out of bed. As a potential hero of this Open, Sue Clearwater, well knows.