America's substitute has been called front and center. Again. The last time we saw Steve Young, he had replaced Joe Montana on the football field. This time he's replacing him on the golf course.

Montana had committed to play in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Then, in San Francisco's playoff game against the New York Giants, Leonard Marshall made popcorn out of Joe's right hand.So, Young comes into that field, and into partnership with another Brigham Young graduate, pro Johnny Miller. John was to play with Bryant Gumbel, the announcer, but Gumbel had to withdraw. For him, the war in the Middle East must take precedence over the tournament in the Far West.

What soon must take precedent for Young are the plans for his future. Again. As of Friday, Steve is no longer under contract to the 49ers. He's a restricted free agent, for what it's worth.

"A free agent in the NFL," reminds Young, "is not like a free agent in baseball or basketball."

A restricted free agent is free to sign with anyone willing to compensate the 49ers with draft picks, specifically two No. 1's for Young. More likely, a team would trade for Young. If the 49ers were willing. And the team were able to sign him. And if Young wanted to be traded. Which he isn't sure he wants to be.

Truth be told, Steve Young isn't sure about very much. Except that he wants to play football. And if Joe Montana's hand heals properly, Young surely will not play. And Young will be another year older, 30, and we'll be writing more stories about pro football's best backup quarterback.

"Half the fun of life, I always thought," Young said back in his salad days, "is being insecure, wondering if you can make it."

He's stopped wondering. He's started agonizing. Tick, tick. The clock will not stop. On the final play of a season when San Francisco didn't go to the Super Bowl, Steve Young was at quarterback. Will he ever be there again?

"I can't tell you right now," said Young.

In the season of 1990, Steve Young didn't play a down for five games, didn't throw a pass the first 10. He had a 1.000 completion percentage through game 14, one for one.

"I'm a pro football player and a quarterback. My skills are to a point where I have to play. But in my own mind I don't know what I'm going to do.

"This year was particularly difficult. I've learned a ton from Joe. I felt I could step into a game and play great. Not to play seems illogical."

Not to play for the 49ers seems absurd.

"I got my team, got my coaches, got my city," said Young. "I've been distraught the last week because of our loss to the Giants. It wasn't that I would have played because Joe got hurt - although that would have been a great opportunity - but because we had a chance to make history.

"I've been other places. I know the complications of putting together a winning team. I could learn a new offense, but this is like an old car, a friend, something you've had for years. You feel comfortable. You know you can do it."

Young will meet with owner Eddie DeBartolo, coach George Seifert, offensive coach Mike Holmgren. Then he must decide. Then the 49ers must decide.

"Everything," he promised, "will pan out. It just takes time."

And Steve Young, America's sub, is running out of time.