The ice on the lakes at Needwood Golf Course has long since melted and the fairways are slowly turning from the olive drab of February to the emerald of April.

The trees are still barren, but the first faint blush of red buds already tinges the woods in the middle distance.

Starter Sam Cook, 62, sits by the first tee every day and watches it all.

He sees the 70-pound snapping turtle crawl out of the lake by the 18th green, and he sees the two Canada geese flee with their three goslings.

He watches at dusk to see if the hundreds of seagulls feeding at the nearby Montgomery County landfill with alight en masse on his lake, "like a silver cloud," in the slanting light of evening.

But mostly Cook welcomes back old human friends. And tries to keep from laughing.

Nature has not only stirred the turtle, the gander and the gull. It has activated those "dogged victims of inexorable fate" - the golfers. While others seek the first robin of spring, they hunt the first birdie.

"People can't wait to feel a club in their hands again," says Cook. "It's been the worst winter in 50 years for golf and folks have been depressed. They call the course just to talk golf for 20 minutes or they ask to come out to the pro shop just to swing the new clubs."

But this week, nature has set the thermostat at 68 degrees, drawing the hackers courseward.

"Everybody's rusty. Can't say I've seen too many good drives," said the starter. "But they seem to accept it as fate itself. Sometimes I'll yell, 'Take a mulligan.' Then I'll say to myself, 'because you sure need it.'"

The first swing of the new year, the first hole, is a Pandora's Box of hope and despair.

"Saw a guy with one of those $400 electric bag-carriers they call Kangaroos. You set the dial for 200 yards, push a button, point the cart and it carries the bag 200 yards, stops and waits for you.

"Yup, the other day this fella sets the dial, pushes the button and the Kangaroo takes off, turns dead left and pitches itself into that lake down there.

"Well, he jumped right in the water after it and fished that Kangaroo out. All he said when he came back past me was, 'Been in the closet all winter.'"

Many a swing has been left in that closet to go haywire, too. Last spring, a beginner lashed at his first Needwood drive, grazed the ball with the heel of his club, then watched as the ball shot between his feet, caromed off a cart path and went into the cup on the adjacent 18th green.

"He thought it was a hole in one," swears Cook, a two-handicapper who would never tell a golf tale. "I had a heck of a time calming him down."

Yet, somehow that first atrocious hara-kiri lunge of spring never causes a broken club or an oath. "They all seem to accept . . ." says Cook.

Mostly that is because golfers believe they deserve to suffer. Certainly Frank Roper, the first man Cook sent off the Needwood back nine yesterday, was riddled with guilt.

When Roper woke up yesterday at the crack of dawn and saw the crystalline sky, he knew he was doomed.

"All winter I've told myself that this year I'd practice before I played, then take a couple of lessons. Do it right. For the last week, I've been telling myself, 'Swing slow.' You know, trying to program my subconscious.

"But this morning was so beautiful, I just had to play."

So Roper extracted a groggy commitment from a golf-crazed neighbor at 7 a.m. and before they or their stomachs knew it, they were winding up the wavy yellow line of Muncaster Mill Road, past the chestnut mares grazing near the Needwood driving range, and into the empty parking lot.

With Cook's blessing, they began the season. All vows of practice and lessons were off.

They had the course to themselves except for the two Canada geese breakfasting on the surface of the peaceful lake that serves as a watery grave for 10,000 golf balls.

"They'd make good eating," said Bud Ward, eyeing the fowl.

"Naw," said Roper. "They'd taste too much like Titleists."

For three magic holes, Roper could do no wrong: par, par, par. "All his bad habits," grinned Ward. "Poor Frank almost thought he'd forgotten them."

But they had not forgotten him. On the fourth hole, he hooked wildly left, then sliced ignominiously right.

"It all came back to me," said Roper. "How not to shift my weight off the right foot. How to swing too hard."

Such an old sad story. "The first few swings of the year are often their best," said Needwood pro Jim Hightower sadly. "It's the only time a golfer expects nothing of himself and swings smoothly."

Out of the deep well of the unconscious spring a few wonderfully pure shots. Putting nonchalantly on the tans, the golfers of spring sink 30-footers they could never hole on a green.

And Hightower is waiting for them, ready to prey on the cruel illusions of March.

"I've got 18 brands of new clubs in stock," he smiles. "Browning 440 irons . . . sounds like a gun doesn't it. Confidence woods with the cast-steel club face."

For the golfer with the new clubs that just have to be broken in, Hightower has bought 12,000 new range balls, all stamped with the words "Stolen from Jim Hightower."

"When they rip off my range balls and then drop one down to hit over a water hazard, I want 'em to think of me," says Hightower. "Knowing they're lookin' at that 'stolen from' as they swing is almost as good as being there to hear it splash."

And when the high hopes have floundered, they will be back in June. "First they try to help themselves," says Hightower. "Then they read all the books. Then they listen to their buddies. When they're a complete wreck, they come back to me and say, 'Cure me in one lesson.'

"I've almost given up on men. I'd rather teach women. They're realists. They hit one three feet, then look at you and smile," says Hightower, a man who has a sign above his desk that reads: "It's a beautiful day. Now watch some bastard louse it up."

Certainly, yesterday was to exquisite, too long-awaited for anything to spoil it.

"I looked at that frozen lake for weeks with about 20 balls sitting on it," said snack-bar cashier Rick Hunt. "When that ice melted, I watched the balls sink. That was spring to me."