It is easy to tell it's Masters time again: merely read all the Jack Nicklaus stories. Godlike Jack. He goes to Augusta when the regular tour mortals are mudding it at Greensboro, shoots a few 67s and has the press saying the Masters is his for the taking. The big question is the Grand Slam: is this Jack's year?

Nicklaus is golfs greatest moneymaker, but he is not the game's greatest player. That distinction is Bobby Jones', whose record of winning 62 per cent of all the championships he entered has never been even closely challenged by Nicklaus.

Assuredly, Nicklaus has a fine chance of winning the Masters. The course is not especially challenging, the field is small and weak, and Masters officials use snobbish "qualification regulations" that keep out many of the proven tour players.

Last year, for example, neither Jerry Pate nor Dave Stockton played at Augusta. And 10 of the 15 current leading money winners did not play last year.

Of course, it is true that some among this year's top 15 such as Bruce Lietzke, Danny Edwards, Larry Nelson, Andy Bean, Tom Purtzer and Gary Koch were not exactly setting the world afire prior to last year's Masters. And another in the current top 15, Lanny Wadkins, was injured.

Of the leading 50, 31 did not play. On the other side of this imbalance, 34 who were invited to last year's Masters are not among the current leading money winners.

The average weekly PGA event is more competitive than the Masters.

Something is hokey about a tournament that gets its prestige by putting out of work for a week some of the game's best players and allows in all manner of hackers. One way exists to end this snobbery: a boycott by the touring pros who are invited on behalf of those who are not. The latter have chances to play in nearly all other tournaments, but not the Masters. A boycott is unlifely. The tour players are no better than the nation's other big-buck. I've-got-mine athletes who have little awareness that they are being manipulated by the promoters and advertisers.

The effort needs to be made to make the Tournament Players Championship into one of the four majors, and return the Masters to its true status: the Clifford Roberts Invitational or the Green Jacket Open.

With this year's field below 80, and only half of it capable of playing winning golf, forecasting the winner and the losers is not a high challenge. But with a tee provided by my colleagues in the sports department, and my own supply of foolhardiness ever large.I am happy to swing away with my predictions.

My choices for six sure losers:

Jack Nicklaus, Jack has let it be known that he is irked by the attention being given to the Lietzkes, Beans, Marshes and other upstarts dominating the headlines this year. But Nicklaus can no longer summon his game for just the majors. Last year proved that. As with most athletes, he'll be the last to know that his touch is gone.

Arnold Palmer. He's playing for nostalgia. With Freddie McLeod summoned to heaven, why not make Arnie the Honorary Old-Timer and send him off the tee first. Pair him with Jerry Ford, who'll play anywhere.

Tom Weiskopf. It used to be Bert Yancey who had a Masters hangup (he wanted to win so much he'd make model greens in his den and stare at them all winter) but now it's Weiskopf with the fixation. He's finished second four times, and unless Master Cliff comes up with an also-ran award - why not a green plaid jacket? - Weiskopf is in for another sour week.

Johnny Miller. Except for his 63 at Oakmont, the Arizona Kid has gotten by more on his golden locks than his golf game. They say he's in a slump now, but at Sears he is still big. His alibi this year is a sore wrist, which was what Weiskopf used to say.

Takashi Murakami. The Masters always has an honorable Japanese contingent, to add honorable color to titillate honorable Augusta fans. The Japanese hackers do little more than the Spanish, British or Belgian imports of mediocrity.

Bill Sander. Here's the nobodies' nobody - the current U.S. Amateur champ who won by beating someone named Parker Moore, 8 and 6. Moore will be on hand, too, along with other no-hopes like Vinnie Giles. Together, they symbolize the token democracy the Masters strives for, but the big prayer is that they will make the cut so that there is even an amateur prize to be awarded.

My pick for a winner includes these six:

Tom Watson. He is mad at himself for blowing those two recent tournaments and he knows the press is about to make a thing of his final-round snapping. But he knows that he is smarter than most of the golf writers covering him, and that alone may goad him into winning.

Lanny Wadkins. He has spunk. He's been through his slump, he's been humbled and he knows what it is to remold a golf game. He is psychologically ready to win, which, twice over, is more important than talent.

Gary Player.He has been scoring well this winter. He has won the Masters twice. He takes care of his health, which accounts for his being one of the world's best golfers for nearly 20 years. He has some of the qualities of Bobby Jones, also a family man who kept the game in perspective. A win here by Player would remind us again of Jones, and that would be fine.

Mark Hayes. Among the so-called upstarts, he has the soundest game. He'll be paid attention by no one, which means by the last nine he can come in from nowhere, shoot a 32 and win it.

Ray Floyd. In the last 10 years, the Masters has been won by a tour regular, as against the so-called Big Four. Floyd is being dismissed as a lucky hot-putter winner of last year, but he is a mature player with robust self-confidence. Nicklaus doesn't scare him.

Ben Crenshaw. The pressure of expectations - from himself and from others - is easing up on Gentle Ben. He is either going to prove himself this year or settle into the herd life of the tour. He is one of golf's best putters and likes the masters greens.