PALM BEACH GARDENS, FLA., AUG. 9 -- The dragonflies came out at evening and the crickets began to chirp. They'd saved their strength all day, staying out of the sun on the hottest Aug. 9 in history here. All around the 10th green of the Champions Course at PGA National they buzzed and sang, as full of energy as Larry Nelson and Lanny Wadkins were devoid of it.

Finally, his fuel gauge on empty, Wadkins could not struggle any longer. As his six-foot putt for par slid past the hole, Wadkins barely showed any disappointment at all, merely turning to shake the hand of one of his best friends. Nelson, on the strength of a scrambling par, had won the 69th PGA Championship on the first playoff hole.

On a golf course he called the hardest he had ever seen, Nelson shot an even-par 72 this sweltering afternoon for a 1-under-par total of 287. "Well, I guess it was hotter in Vietnam," shrugged Nelson, who finished regulation play one shot ahead of Scott Hoch (69) and D.A. Weibring (76) and two strokes in front of Mark McCumber (77) and Don Pooley (72).

In the end, every contender lost, while Nelson survived to collect a $150,000 check and his third major title of the 1980s. "I keep hearing about how the last 18 majors have been won by 18 different players. I guess we can start the count over now," said Nelson, who began the bizarre streak with his U.S. Open win in 1983. Actually, the streak is intact. It's holding at 18.

It's safe to assume that lots of lamps were smashed in plenty of hotel rooms after sunset this evening. At least a half-dozen men will go to sleep mortally convinced they could and should have won this title.

Seve Ballesteros was momentarily tied for the lead before taking a triple-bogey 8 at the third hole on his way to 78. Weibring held the lead as late as the 11th hole before realizing where he was and making three straight bogeys to disappear from the serious hunt. Bobby Wadkins (77) hung around the lead all day but never made a move; either he or Raymond Floyd, who shot 80, could have won with a humble 73.

Moving up the misery list, we come to Hoch who threw away a gold-plated chance to be in the playoff, at least. He had a dead flat eight-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole that would have made him the leader alone at 2 under par. Instead, he ran the ball three feet past, then played the comebacker quickly and carelessly, missing badly.

The most painfully beaten man was McCumber, the leader with Weibring starting the day. After five holes, he stood at 5 under par and held a two-shot lead. Before you could say, "Look out," the Champions Course had handed him a bogey-bogey-double bogey-bogey collapse. Amazingly, McCumber recovered, made three birdies in four holes on the back nine to lead alone after a chipin birdie at 14.

Then, his real misery started, as he bogeyed the 15th and 16th holes. Finally, at the 18th, he tried a dazzling gamble -- one that players will discuss for years. Needing a birdie to tie Wadkins and Nelson, he tried to reach the 541-yard hole in two shots, something no one had done all day into the strong wind. Into the water went his driver shot from the fairway, leaving Nelson and Wadkins to duel.

Nelson, who also won the 1981 PGA, captured this title just as he has won his others -- with straight driving, marvelous iron play, an utterly imperturbable temperament and a hunt-and-peck putting game. He saved two of the best and most vital putts of his career fro the final three holes.

At the 17th, he sank a 20-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead with Wadkins. "I knew I had to birdie one of the last two holes," said Nelson, who deliberately left Ben Crenshaw's ball marker squarely in his line, three feet from the hole because "it looked so good to aim at." His putt rolled directly over the coin but was not knocked off line.

Then, on the first playoff hole -- a 409-yarder that played easier than any par 4 on the course -- Nelson chipped from the back fringe to seven feet. "That was one of the greatest putts of my career, that last little one," said Nelson.

This victory underlines the strangeness of a career that includes only eight tour wins -- fewer than players like Andy Bean (11), Ben Crenshaw (13), Tom Kite (10), Bruce Lietzke (10), Calvin Peete (12), Curtis Strange (11) and Lanny Wadkins (16). Yet Nelson has three major titles and they have only two among all of them.

The reason is no mystery. Regular tour events, with little rough and soft, smooth greens, are largely putting contests. Nelson is, by pro standards, an absolutely horrid putter. The majors, especially the U.S. Open and PGA, hold the short stick in contempt and do everything possible to favor players who can hit proper golf shots, not those who kick the ball all over the lot, then save themselves with long putts.

In the end, the heat and rough and 20 mph winds and brutally bumpy greens here wore down every player in the field of 150. Except the pure-swinging Nelson. And he was staggering. "I can't ever remember my rounds, shot-by-shot, after I play them," said Nelson. "It's strange. All the other players can. Maybe it's because I try to forget what's behind me."

Forgetfulness was essential here, even for Nelson, who had to forget bogeys at the 14th and 16th holes, each of which looked like a potential tournament loser.

Wadkins seemingly couldn't forget enough. "It was a struggle for me. I've been fighting my swing the last two days. I made some pro shots, but it was a lotta work. I guess I got it done," said the man who's won nearly $3 million on Tour, but only one major title, the '77 PGA, also in a playoff.

Interestingly, Nelson and Wadkins are almost identical as players, yet antithetical as personalities. "We both hit it in the fairway and play the irons well," said Wadkins. "When he's on his game, Larry may be the best iron player I've ever seen . . . And, ya know, neither of us has ever been known for running the tables {on the greens}."

That's why the Champions Course, with its ugly chemical-blighted greens, suited them so well. Nobody else could putt either. Add the killing rough, which they avoided better than most, and the outcome has hindsight logic.

Not since David Graham beat Crenshaw at the 1979 PGA has a major been decided in a two-man playoff between best friends. Are the colorful Wadkins and the, shall we say phlegmatic, Nelson an example of opposites attracting? "Are you sayin' I'm a wild, hell-raisin' son of a bitch?" asked Wadkins, grinning. He took a drag on a beer, then answered: "Might be."

Nelson, on the other hand, is a charter member of the tour's Bible study group. Earlier this week, Greg Norman said, "God's three for three in the last three American majors." Now, He's four for four, with Nelson, Scott Simpson, Larry Mize and Bob Tway.

After the way Nelson's clutch putt found the cup this evening, while Wadkins' narrowly slipped past, the new PGA champion may soon have a black sheep who's a candidate for conversion.