The PGA Tour is feeling some pain this week because of its strong stand against playing future golf tournaments at country clubs with discriminatory membership practices. In years to come, however, the sport should gain back far more than it is losing now.

So far, Butler National Golf Club in Oak Brook, Ill., and Old Warton Country Club in St. Louis have identified themselves as clubs that would rather lose the pleasure of Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus's company than accept a PGA Tour timetable for admitting women (at Butler) or blacks (at Old Warton).

The PGA Tour, Senior PGA Tour and Ben Hogan (younger players) Tour play 118 events a year. According to Deputy Tour Commissioner Timothy Finchem: "We'll probably lose two or three sites on each of the three tours. In addition, we have a number of clubs where we will have to monitor the situation closely to make sure that they honor their commitment to us to take action in the coming months."

You will note that Finchem said "months," not years.

What a contrast to the PGA of America, which still has three of its next four annual championships scheduled at discriminatory clubs. No wonder that some in golf think the poorly run PGA Championship, which has been on the skids for years, has now fallen entirely out of the major tournament category.

You won't find the folks at the Masters committing such suicidal folly. They can tell which way the wind blows. This week, Augusta National Country Club just happened to admit its first black member. Amazing how a gun at your head suddenly brings all your right-thinking brainpower into play.

The Masters would have us believe that the arrival of Ron Townsend (and his 15 handicap) is a mere coincidence, entirely unrelated to the fact that, if Augusta National hadn't had a black member by next April, you might not have been able to get through the main gates for the pickets. Not to mention all the corporations that might have canceled their Masters advertising and promotional campaigns.

Augusta National deserves no applause for its long overdue action. The PGA Tour, however, may be in line for some credit. The Tour could hardly have taken faster or firmer action to solve a problem that it barely knew existed. The Hall Thompson contretemps at last month's PGA Championship at Shoal Creek hit the PGA Tour like a lightning bolt. The sport had little idea that more than a dozen of its tournaments were held at clubs with no blacks or no women. Nobody had ever bothered to ask the question. Talk about egg on your face. Talk about midnight-oil damage-control emergency meetings.

You could almost hear Deane Beman scream, "What!!!???"

Which is more embarrassing? Looking like a racist when you're not? Or having to admit you've been so busy playing golf and making money that you never asked about the membership policies at the clubs where you raked in the cash?

(Of course, every golf writer in America, including me, felt similarly embarrassed. What a story to overlook!)

"It caught a lot of people by surprise that it was as widespread as it was," said Tour spokesman Sid Wilson. "Whenever we were at these clubs, we saw no discrimination toward black or Hispanic players or minorities in our galleries. But that may be naive. We were only there one week a year."

It took the PGA Tour one day (or was it two days) to create a new tough-sounding policy. The only question was: Did the Tour really mean business?

Now, the answer seems to be, "Yes."

"There's no future in fooling around with this," said Finchem. "We've gone to everybody involved and said: 'We'll ride with you on this for a little while. But, at the end of the day, let's get it out on the table -- how do you really feel?' In the long term, only being candid will work.

"Let's face it, a lot of the PGA Tour's success is directly related to our image as a game with values that people can be proud of. We're the sport that gives {$20 million a year} to charity. Our players have an honor code and police themselves. They earn every penny that they win -- week by week. We're not going to monkey around with that image."

Tour spokesman Wilson stated the case more bluntly: "If we don't respond to this properly, it would be the ruination of the game. Corporate America would drop us. We have all the right things going for us. That's why we attract sponsors. As soon as we become a blemish to them, they have other things to do with their money."

Some may find it amusing to think of corporate America as the engine that drives the bus of equality in golf. But that's what's happening. IBM dropped its advertising for the PGA Championship in August faster than you can scrape mud off your shoe. And, of course, that's just what IBM, and other giants, were doing.

In retrospect, Hall Thompson should probably be golf's man of the year for 1990. He started all this, of course, by saying Shoal Creek would consider anybody for membership "except blacks." His now-infamous remarks have, by accident, provided his sport a service, just as Al Campanis's blundering tongue helped force baseball to confront its bad record on minority hiring.

Just think of what Thompson has done: Exposed the PGA of America. Focused critical attention on discriminatory country clubs from coast to coast. Lit a fire under the PGA Tour's fanny. Forced Augusta National to start acting right.

Perhaps most important, this whole controversy has helped make it clear to Americans that true social equality is not in sight until people of different races, sexes and religions not only feel comfortable working together, but playing together too.