The beginning of the end for Arnold Palmer came long ago. In truth, the transition from golf's most dynamic force to one of its elder statesmen is nearly complete, a fact most in evidence at the Masters.

Inside the Augusta National buildings are the pictures, of the lean and obsessed Palmer of 1958 with those other prominent masters, Clifford Roberts and Dwight Eisenhower. Outside is the reality, Palmer walking down the ninth fairway, smiling to his wife, Winnie, who is saying to a friend:

"I don't know what's more frustrating a birdie and then a bogey or a bogey and then a birdie. The bogeys are so tough to take." And so inevitable. Lately, robins chirp on Palmer's backswing; insects on the greens bite. To duffers he was once an inspiration; now he is almost a reflection.

Probably, Palmer avoids dwelling on this, but all those "young lions" of the tour, the Lietzkes and Crenshaws, Watsons, Pates, and Maltbies in total, are the Palmer generation of golfers, for whom he has made the game not only a pleasure but also highly profitable.

"I can remember watching him on television," said Gary Koch, "when I was first interested in golf, about age 8 or 9 in '60, '61. Sure he's one of the reasons I got so enthused about golf. And he and television are two main reasons we're playing for what we are.

"Now to be out here seeing him struggling like he is, is sad. You hate to see anyone like him, who has been there, and now has lost it. If he'd never been at the top, never been 'The Man,' you wouldn't feel that way.

"But he used to be able to just do what he needed to win. The shot that had to be made; the putt that had to go in, went in. None of that's there at all, and it's really a shame."

And yet the vast majority of golf fans do not seem to care. Or at least the Masters faithful do not. Making the cut rather than winning here is the only realistic Palmer goal these days, but he still attracts enormous galleries. His following may not be an army now, but it hardly is platoon size - and never will be.

One might well expect Palmer's followers to be easily typed, middle-aged to elderly, who turned puffy and gray along with their hero, the sort who helped George Blanda player of the year once in his mid-40s when in fact he was no more than a relief pitcher on a hot streak.

That crowd is here, of course, but not overwhelming. There are a remarkable number of young faces, even tender ones, tagging along.Probably, though, the serious golfers among the paying customers are off watching Tom Weiskopf or Watson or Pate or the others whose game is played in the sunshine.

When Palmer's shots stray into the shade, they immediately are surrounded - and marshalls still hustle especially hard to make certain a friendly foot does not kick his ball back toward the fairway.

Palmer is one of the few golfers, one can follow reasonably accurately with his ears instead of his eyes. A roar does not signal anything special, merely that hope is still rekindled, perhaps with a wedge to 12 feet. A sign audible 100 yards away means he has lipped another four-footer.

And when Palmer pulls off an eagle, which he did here Friday on No. 13 with a drive, three-wood and 25-foot uphill putt, mental clocks twist back 15 years and seismographs around the golfing world begin fluttering. Arnie is charging. And then, as Winnie noted earlier, come the bogeys.

It it is an ego boost to be paraded before the press once again, as Palmer was Friday, it also is at least mildly depressing when it comes after simply making the cut with a one-under-par 71.

"The key problems the last year or so?" he repeats. "That would take all day to explain. Let me just say that the only good poist has been my driving, which is as good or better than ever.

"But the irons are very bad, and getting up and down is very bad. And it doesn't even have to be very bad for you to shoot 75. Here or anywhere else." (He had shot 81 the second day here last year and missed the cut.)

Palmer also had an ego jolt as he was leaving the press area, when a guard looked at his chest instead of his face and did not see the proper badge. As instructed, the guard began to push Palmer away, and for a moment Palmer was furious. Then the guard recognized Palmer, and realized he needs no badges for unlimited access at Augusta.

"You almost had yourself a helluva story," he said a few seconds later, laughing at the incident. "With fist and somebody's nose."

Except for ose crucial "but," there would have been a helluva story today, Palmer had six birdies, three on each nine. But he made three bogeys - and a double-bogey five on the par-three 12th when he switched from a seven to a six-iron and smacked the ball in the back trap.

"At least I've been doing something the last two days," he said. "Instead of just making pars and bogeys. "I've actually had 11 birds (including a 10-inch tap-in on No. 18). If I'd just made, say, four bogeys, or two each day, I'd be three under (instead of two over)."

But can you still make a run at the title in the last round. Arnie, asked a radio guy, almost hyperventilating. "Well," said Palmer. "I can make a run at it, but there are lots of other guys who'll be making runs, too."

"It was a polite way of saying: Mister, you have just bogeyed a question.