The first ball of the million-dollar era in women's golf is scheduled to be struck around 7:30 this morning, and Betsy King will make her way to the 10th tee at the Bethesda Country Club about 4 1/2 hours later to begin pursuit of her third major title this year. In between, the 36th LPGA Championship will unfold with today's opening round amid a mood of reflection and wonderment.

Pat Bradley, the last player to win three majors in a year, chuckled yesterday when she recalled the first of her 26 victories on the tour -- a 1976 win at the curiously named Girl Talk Classic in New Rochelle, N.Y., that brought her the $14,000 winner's share of a $76,000 purse.

"And it wasn't just the money," Bradley said of her early years as a pro. "The worst thing was the golf courses. . . . We played on some real cow pastures back then."

Bethesda's testing 6,245-yard, par-71 course -- with its aesthetic but tryingly narrow, tree-lined fairways, its unforgiving rough and its sloping, lightning-quick greens -- certainly is a far cry from anything resembling a feeding ground. For the players who have been around long enough to remember the LPGA's days of pitiable payoffs and second-class citizenry, this weekend represents a breakthrough toward the big money and high exposure the men's tour long has enjoyed.

The $1 million purse, including a $150,000 share for the winner, is the largest in LPGA history. The watershed figure comes through a pairing with Mazda as a powerful lead sponsor, and players and tour officials alike believe the game's heyday may be on the horizon.

"We've come a long way," said Nancy Lopez, a three-time winner of the LPGA Championship, including last year's tournament in Kings Island, Ohio. "I can remember winning events 14 years ago and making not even 10,000 dollars. . . . It's about time."

Lopez and Bradley are among the exclusive group given a solid chance of winning this tournament. The move from Kings Island to Bethesda promises to reserve the top of the leader board for the game's biggest names, since this course will expose any tee-to-green deficiencies and favor the longest, truest, most consistent hitters.

Kings Island "was a golf course that opened the door {for long shots}, while this is one that closes it," Bradley said. "That course was much more wide open, with greens that were flatter and bigger. Here you'll have to be striking the ball well for four days to have a chance.

"This course is extremely challenging. It plays long, and its par-3s are very demanding. The greens are fast and very slopey. It's a true test. You'll have to use every club in the bag. . . . This place is going to separate some players the very first day."

The tournament may be won or lost at a pair of par-3 holes. The 11th is a downhill 205-yarder that was considered the most difficult par 3 (and ranked as the 15th-toughest hole overall) on the 1989 tour; it plays deceptively long, and it has a small, fast green with a bunker set to the left.

But the most tears likely will be shed on No. 16, a nightmarish 192 yards of uphill terrain. The hole is an original from the 1929 Women's National Country Club that was Bethesda's forerunner, and out-of-bounds stakes line its entire left side. A tiny green is surrounded by bunkers, including a foreboding duo in the back.

On a course that rewards power and precision equally, those two holes are reminders of the punishment facing any play varying more than a little from perfection. "The greens on those two are like hitting to a postage stamp," Bradley said.

From a 144-player field that includes 68 of the year's top 70 money-winners, Bethesda's layout would seem to favor the styles of Lopez, Bradley, King, Beth Daniel and the hottest player on the tour, Patty Sheehan. Notions of a lesser-known player remaining in contention very long are scoffed at, for the pressure of a major now has been compounded by the glare of the purse. Bradley offered Danielle Ammaccapane as a dark horse possibility, but underdogs generally are at a premium.

King will be watched the closest, for she is attempting to make history during a decidedly unsteady year. She sizzled consistently last year en route to one of the most successful campaigns in tour history, winning six tournaments and setting an all-time earnings record.

King has slumped somewhat in 1990. She comes here tinkering with her swing and in the midst of a year of struggling with the mental strain of dominance and the accompanying expectations. She has won but two tournaments.

Those victories, however, came at the Dinah Shore and the U.S. Women's Open, in which she came from 11 strokes back to defeat Sheehan on the final, 36-hole day. A win here would make King just the third player to win three of four majors during a year: Mickey Wright did so in 1961 and Bradley in '86. Two players have swept a year's majors, but never during a year when four were played.

"I haven't had a lot of consistency this year," King said. "I'm coming up with some big results, but I'm not doing it week in, week out. I think I'm working things out with my swing. It's been so I'd go out on the course and have no idea what I was going to shoot, but hopefully I'm starting to get myself under control now."

Sheehan's Open collapse -- she led playing partner Jane Geddes by eight shots with 32 holes to play and King by five with 18 left -- has been a rare blemish on a sparkling year. She comes here as the tour's leading money-winner, and she has finished first or second in six straight tournaments.

She has won two LPGA Championships, yet the memory of two straight final-day Open losses to King lingers. She is one of the most emotional players on the tour, and a blitz of three majors in five weeks has worn on her badly.

"I'm exhausted, kind of brain dead," Sheehan said. "It's hard to think about what's next. . . . I'm proud of myself {for the Open} because it was such a difficult week. Overall, I've been playing great golf."

Daniel won the Greater Washington Open on this course last year, and Lopez -- who hasn't won a tournament this year -- traditionally saves her best golf for the LPGA Championship.

"It's definitely a special tournament for me," said Lopez, who has reneged somewhat on plans to cut back on her appearances this year and devote more time to her family. "If I win it, I might not play again all year."