Golf is essentially a game of man against the elements, and never more so than in this week's US Open at Winged Foot. The sport's premier tournament takes place at one of its most magnificent courses for the fourth time, and the challenging elements include long, and narrow fairways, small and slick greens, deep bunkers out of which a player can barely see, and lush rough that makes forecaddies necessary to find misguided shots.
Then there is the pressure that attaches to the prestigious title and Winged Foot tradition. By starting time Thursday it becomes thick enough to cut with a wedge. Bob Jones won the Open here in 1929, Billy Casper in '59, and Hale Irwin in '74. Mementos are everywhere.
It is the sponsoring US Golf Association's intent to provide a complete examination in golf, and that includes intense mental as well as physical testing. The champion will be a player who never gives up for an instant.
Jack Nicklaus, questing after a record fifth US Open victory and a 20th major championship overall, is such a man and has been the talk of the town. Nicklaus came in early to play two practice rounds last week before flying back home to make his final preparations. He shot rounds of 64 and 69, which almost certainly would lead the tournament after 36 holes.
Winless for two years, he rebounded to win his own Memorial Tournament late in May and now must be considered a prime contender. Frank Hannigan, a senior executive of the USGA, remembers Nicklaus coming in early and playing two good practice rounds at Baltusrol in 1967 before winning.
There has been speculation, following an unusually wet spring, whether the greens would be up to Open speed. ''I think they will,'' says Nicklaus, who prefers swift greens. ''They're firm enough - my approach shots weren't leaving any ball marks. This is one of the best conditioned courses in the world.''
And the shin-deep rough?
Nicklaus is worried more about the stately old trees that frame the tight driving areas. ''They keep growing and closing in on you. You can get out of the rough but you cannot necessarily keep out of the trees.''
Not only does Winged Foot require accuracy off the tee, it demands prodigious distance. Seven of the dozen par-four holes are more than 440 yards long, including the last three holes.
Last year at Oakmont, where Larry Nelson won, many players complained that the USGA took the drivers out of their bags by setting up the course so that they had to lay up off the tee too much. There should be no such complaints this year.
Perhaps never has an Open course played harder than 10 years ago at Winged Foot, when Hale Irwin won with a score that was seven strokes over par. It was called ''the massacre at Winged Foot.'' Some holes were too long (the USGA converts the ninth and 16th at Winged Foot from par-fives to par-fours for the Open) and the greens so glassy a ball could take off and roll 50 feet without being touched by a putter.
The USGA promises a more reasoned approach this year, though the ninth and 16 th again will be played as grueling par-fours with greens too small for the purpose.
That 1974 Open was a memorable one for Tom Watson, too, but in a very different way. A young Watson led after three rounds, but blew up to a 41 on the final nine.
In the locker room later, he was encouraged and consoled by the legendary Byron Nelson, who had done commentary on the telecast. A warm teacher-pupil relationship was established and continues to this day.
''I owe Winged Foot one,'' says Watson, who won the 1982 Open so dramatically at Pebble Beach. He comes into the 84th Open as the year's leading money winner by far with $345,000, and owns victories in the Tournament of Champions and a match play event.
Masters champion Ben Crenshaw failed to qualify for the '74 Open but knows and respects Winged Foot well. ''It might be the toughest, fairest test we face, '' he says. ''It calls for one difficult, honest golf shot after another.''
Crenshaw points out that defending champion Nelson, while he has been playing poorly, is the kind of determined, patient person who could win this week. Nelson says he has learned to chip well only recently and is confident about making a strong defense.
Among 1984 tournament winners who could challenge here are Greg Norman, Andy Bean, Craig Stadler, Gary Koch, and last week's Westchester winner Scott Simpson. It is the time of year Seve Ballesteros comes to life, and don't discount steady players like David Graham, Gil Morgan, Tom Kite, Cal Peete, and Mark O'Meara.