Several fairways are wide enough for a decent-sized plane to land, although any mortal who tries to get inside the ropes is likely to be hung by his Etonics from the veranda. The course is closed as often as it is open, and has yielded eight-under-par rounds in competition to such as Maurice Bembridge. This is Augusta National.

The purse is not as large as many PGA tour stop; even the Quad Cities Open has a stronger overall field. It became a major tournment because Bobby Jones wanted it that way; it remains major in our hearts, if not our minda. This is the Masters.

If the Masterssignals the start of the golf season, as many insist, somebody forgot to tell Tom Watson and the nine other pro swatters who already have won at least $50,000 this year. What the Masters has, above all, is tradition, gosts and memories creeping through the pines and azaleas, and that is the greatest hazard of all.

If the younger players - Watson, Bruce Lietzke, Ben Crenshaw and several others - can somehow convince themselves the Masters more closely resembles some out-of-the-way tour stop, say the Laverne and Shirley Invitational in Minot, S.D., than the TPC, they have a chance to keep Jack Nicklaus from his sixth championship.

In truth, the Masters ought to remain major, if only because of that tradition and those memories, and because it also happens to be the best-run tournament of them all for a spectator. With a minimum of effort, anyone can know where the leaders are and what they are doing at almost any given moment.

And with material not that difficult to obtain one can watch a Larry Ziegler play the par-five eigth hole and realize that Jimmy Demaret played it 72 straight times without a bogey. (He had 22 birds and 50 pars.)

Or recall that, starting with the 20th hole in 1947, Ben Hogan played 43 straight holes in 35 pars and eight birds. Or that, starting with the 69th hole in 1964 and ending with the 25th hole in 1965. Gary Player played 29 straight holes without taking more than four on any hole. (He was eight under par for the streak.)

Or all of a sudden almost literally bump into the 1939 champion, Ralph Guldahl, who ways: "I've noticed that most of the players are hitting their second shots from almost the same place we hit ours in the '30s. That's because they're moved the tees back to compensate for the added length the players get now."

Probably, the younger players would stand a better chance if their tour caddies were allowed to join them for the Masters. Nicklaus, for instance, is said to demand just two things from Willie Peterson: keep his clubs clean and, enroute to the second tee, check whether the pin is up or back on the eighth green.

Television viewers still recall not being able to watch that 40-foot birdie putt Nicklaus sank at No. 16 to all but assure victory two years ago. Peterson spoiled the view by jumping up and down between the camera and the cup.

"All I cared about was whether it went in," said Peterson, an odd-jobs worker in Augusta when not toting bags for the all-time master.

The striking thing about Augusta is that a duffer probably will score better there, after a round or so, than he will on his home course. Which is what Jones and the designer, Alistair MacKenzie, had in mind when they built it.

"One of the reasons I decided to give up medicine and take up architecture," MacKenzie wrote, was my firm conviction of the extraordinary influence onhealth of leasurable excitement, especially when combined with fresh air and exercise.

"How frequently have I, with g reat difficulty, persuaded my patients who were never off my doorstep to take up golf, and how rarely, if ever, have I seen them in my consulting rooms agains."

But the Masters hardly is therapeutic. Even with wide fairways and almost no rough, its undulating second-shot areas and glasslike greens conspire to bring on at least a mild case of the yips.

The history of the Masters is that somebody, a Bembridge or Hale Irwin or Johnny Miller, goes on a birdie binge when the pressure is off. So Augusta is vulnerable to a Ziegler or a Lietzke. Who can reach all four par-fives in two shots, if he keeps his wits about him everywhere else.

Still, the leader in local knowledge is Nicklaus. on the essence of evil, No. 12, the 155-yarder that - literally - has drowned so many hopes, the wind was blowing severely as he walked onto the tee the other day.

With little hesitation. Nicklaus chose a six-iron and punched the ball onto the tiniest part of the green, perhaps six feet from the flag. Then he strode off in search of another green coat.