". . . there was a live water moccasin on the edge of that bank," said Jack Nicklaus, "and when I got here there were two more. I don't know whether water moccasins make love or not, but those two sure were entwined."

This was on the 13th tee of the sacred sod of Augusta National a week before the Masters, and the all-time Master, Jack Nicklaus was in fine form, socially and from tee to cup. As he had hoped, his shots were unerring: as he had planned, he was having fun.

If the Masters is a rite of spring, a rite of the Masters is a four-day visit here by five-time winner Nicklaus a week before the tournament. It is a time to hone his game on a course he adores and to ponder, in relative privacy, matters ranging from agronomy to sand to the sex life of snakes. Business and pests are kept to a minimum.

"I play a few rounds by myself, think about shots, fiddle around, things I can't do at a tournament," he said. "I enjoy the course: I enjoy getting away; I enjoy a week without the press. It's pretty quiet - and a chance to get the problems ironed out."

During a round with Augusta member Gene Howerdd, assistant pro Bobby Barrett and golf writer Ken Bowden - and with a gallery generally limited to one - Nicklaus had that rare chance to stop and smell the azaleas, so to speak. And show off that extraordinary flair for clicking his concentration on and off at will.

"That's something I've been able to do," he said, "for as long as I can remember." One instant, he was inquiring about an especially lovely tree, with pink-and-white buds, and the next, click, he was deep in thought about the shot at hand.

On the fairway at the 555-yard, par-5 second hole, Nicklaus' caddy, Willie Peterson, reminded the group of a tiny course alteration for which the game's greatest player apparently had been responsible.

"I knocked it in a creek bed over there," said Nicklaus, "and still made birdie. Now, instead of a creek bed there's a deep ditch. I used to hit the ball to the right here and make birdie, so they put in a fairway trap.

"Do you suppose they'll put a tree here (in the middle of the fairway, where his tee shot carried)? At least they do these things after, not before (somebody finds an advantageous angle). I like that."

On the next hole, Nicklaus was on the fairway, club in hand, and mimicking a familiar British television commentator:

"Ben Wright would say: "He's got a wedge in his hand. That's the weakest part of his game. He's got a tendency to hit it fat, and" - Nicklaus smacked the ball - "he's right."

After three birds and no bogeys, after hitting every fairway but one in regulation and chipping close enough for one-putt pars on the three greens he missed, Nicklaus admitted he was playing much better this year than last at a comparable time.

"Why, I don't know," he said. "I'm not uptight about any part of my game. Is the competitive fire as intense (at 37) as ever? Yes. I've had enough competition this year, and a win under my belt. I've played one more tournament this year than last. But you never know."

There is no special routine he follows during his Wednesday-through-Saturday visit, Nicklaus said. He emphasizes whatever part of his game needs it; sometimes he plays alone but not often. Friday's round included his son, Jackie, whose school's spring break coincides with the Masters.

"When I'm home and I tell somebody I'll be in the office during the day," he said, "that means until 3, when the kids come home from school. That's when I leave."

At time, Nicklaus is amused at the lengths to which Masters officials go to make Augusta appear Eden-like, including blue dye in the water and a special green mixture of sand and dirt that an attendant qucily sprinkles in divots. At the 13th hole, he thought the officials were slier than necessary before the first round last year.

"The day before, you could hit it out (of the creek that fronts the green) because there wasn't any water in there," he said. "Then on the night before the tournament, they damned the thing up. Only they didn't tell us, and guys were going for the green and finding their ball wet when they were short instead of dry. That was unfair."

On the eighth hole, also a par-5, Nicklaus stopped briefly to recall an ill-fated 3-wood shot years ago. The club hit a stone on impact with the ball and the ball hooked so drastically it could not be found. Or perhaps it had found its way into a pocket. Whatever, the stone scar still was visible on his 3-wood.

At the par-5 No. 15, Nicklaus hit a wicked tee shot, then, with a stiff wind in his face, played short of the pond, lamenting, "Ten years ago, I'd have gone for it." Earlier, at the devilish 11th, he surveyed Howerdd's second shot and said, smiling: "This has got to be an unpleasant golf course for the average player from the back tees."

The only unpleasant drive of the round for Nicklaus was the final one, at 18, where he sliced the ball far enough for him to sing, slightly off key, "Bye, bye birdie." There was enough of an opening to reach the green with his second shot, but Nicklaus punched it short.

"You can tell," said Howerdd, who was safely on in two, "that he's not used to playing for $4."