The Masters pleases the eye while teasing the conscience. Few events in sports offer a richer blend of splendor and pretense.

For many, the veranda of the Augusta National Golf Club is the end of the social rainbow. There, under a live oak drapped with spanish moss and wisteria, one can see author Alistair Cook trying to work up the courage to introduce himself to Arnold Palmer.

For others, this course conceived by Bobby Jones is the apogee of golf sophistication and mental torment. Thousands take an early perch each day in the "Amen Corner" to study the vicissitudes of the marvelously deceitful 12th hole - the most storied par-3 in the world.

Lovers of the sensational, rather than the subtle, congregate around the glorious 13th and 15th holes to watch the big boys flirt with creeks and crowds as they gamble for their eagles.

Above all, the throngs here, whether they have inherited their tickets or finagled for them, bask in the pure self-satisfaction of being at the Masters.

Few rewards match a leisurely, rambling week of sniffing the dogwod ogling the azaleas, sipping julips and wandering among the dozen prime vantage points that make this course a unique spectator's heaven.

Nevertheless, always hanging in the back-ground are some nagging questions.

The shacks along Walton Way near Augusta's downtown, with ragged children and old derelicts in the doorways are, for many, a condemnation of the pomp along exclusive Magnolia Lane.

While silver-haired celebrities sip drinks on the terrace at sundown, an all-black legion stoops to pick up their cigarette butts from the hallowed grass.

If Lee Elder needed a crusade to get through the Augusta gates, and if Lee Trevino, the Merry Mex, has felt so uncomfortable here to turn down his Masters invitation three times, they are in the minority in more than one sense.

It is far easier to resist the Masters from a distance. At close range the flowers smell sweeter, the golf is richer with risk than at any other course in the world, and the pomposities of The Club seem like amusing and pathetic anachronisms rather than urgent social dangers.

The scent of dogwood in April is an addictive drug.

Of all the Master's holes, the shortest is probably the best. What the esthetically keen Bobby Jones had in mind for his entire course, he distilled at the 156-yeard 12th - reward and punishment condensed to one easy stroke.

Gene Littler, tied for the tournament lead, stood on the 12th tee Friday and glared at a willow tree far behind the left back edge of the green.

Everything made sense to Gene. The Machine except that cursed willow. The top branches of the great oaks that framed the green were all motionless. The flagstick hung limp. The grass that Littler tossed in the air dropped straight down on his shoe tops.

But the branches of the willow were rustling.

Littler could hear the water in Rae's Creek rushing under Ben Hogan Bridge like the whisper of disaster. And he knew what Hogan himself had said: If the willow blows, beware!

Three times, Littler stood on the tee and changed clubs trying to figure out what evil the swirling, changing wind was up to. Finally, he gave up and simply took the wrong club on purpose.

With a rapid, uncharacteristic swing. Littler drilled the ball over the green and into the back right-hand trap. AT least sand was safer than water. From there, Littler blasted to 10 feet and sank a tough putt for par. At the 12th, such a strategy is called wisdom.

"You can't see all the way back to the 13th tee behind the 12th green," said former U. S. Open champion Ken Venturi. "That's because they got a Delta Airlines counter back there. After you take your triple-bogey on 12, you just go back there and say, "I'd like a one-way ticket back home on Friday night because I just missed the cut."

Morbid humor is the rule at the Amen Corner. Thursday, the pin was cut in its most diabolical position - in the right front.

"It looks so tempting," said one player. "You could practically toss it up next to the hole for a birdie. But what you can't convince yourself of is that the bank in front of the green is really part of the water. If your shot lands eight feet short of the flag in the first inch of fringe it will roll back into the creek every time."

Thursday, the 78-man field played the 12th hole in 51 strokes over par, including a quintuple-bogey eight by Danny Edwards.

"I don't want to talk about the 12th hole, I don't want to talk about the golf. I'm sick of golf," said Edwards after missing the cut.

After Edwards splashed his first shot, he dropped his penalty ball at the very edge of the creek, giving himself a short, but devilishly delicate wedge. "Wrong wrong," said Venturi as he watched, pityingly. "He'd be better off moving back 50 yards and hitting a full wedge. Then he doesn't have to depend on his nerves.

"The players hate to come out in the practice rounds and find the perfect drop spot the back of their minds, that they might hit one in the water. So when they do hit one for them. They don't want to admit, even in in, they compound their misery."

Edwards' tricky flip wedge hit the top of the bank and trickled back into Rae's Creek. Slowly, with fatherly concern, USGA official Ted Emerson guided Edwards to the secondary drop area.

"The boy looked sort of lost," said Emerson, "He was wandering toward the woods on 13."

Naturally, Edwards flew his next wedge over the water, over the bank, over the flag, over the green, and almost over the back trap into the rock garden.

From the back trap, Edwards faced the terror of skulling his sand shot across the slick green and back into Rae's Creek. Then the whole Chinese water torture would start again. So he fluffed his sand shot and left it in the trap, and eventually Texas-wedged his way onto the short grass to save his quintuple.

Nevertheless, Edwards was not the 12th hole's worst victim. Tsuneyuki Nakajima, who got a bogey on the hole was.

"After I bogeyed that little par-3," said the 23-year-old Nakajima through an interpreter, "I promised myself to eagle the next hole (the 485-yard, par-5 13th)."

Nakajima, unnerved, hooked his drive into the woods, eventually took five penalty shots on the hole and ended up with the most atrocious one-hole score in the 42-year history of the Masters: a 13 on 13.

"Did you lose your concentration?" Nakajima was asked.

"No," he replied. "I lost count."

Amen.

"The man who designed this course wouldn't know a thing about it today," said Marv (Hopalong) Eubanks, an Augusta caddie. "If Bobby Jones himself came back to play, he'd need me to caddie for him.

"They make changes in this course every year and the conditions are different everyday. You can study this one course for your whole life and still learn things.

"I remember Ray Floyd came here in '69 and shot three under the first day. He said he wanted to bring in his own caddie instead of using one of us. They let him, poor guy. He shot 82 the next day and fired his caddie. That proves that these pros can't do without us. Augusta is too tough for 'em. You got to love this course like your wife. Only more."

Eubanks is now Floyd's caddie. They worked together in 1975 when Floyd tied the Masters record of 271. "We got a lifetime invitation," beamed Eubanks. "Ray and I may play this course 'til we're 100."

"This course is closed from May until October," said Jeff (Blue) Holmes, who drives a truck full-time and caddies on the side. "They can't let the ducks (hackers) get in here and chew this place up. These rabbits on the tour are bad enough, comin' in here and shooting 80s and missing the cut. But at least Augusta keeps out the ducks."

"While elitism has filtered down to the caddies, that's tradition.

"If you get a good bag, you're set for life," laughed Eubanks. "The same players make the money here every year.

"Willie Peterson, who works for Jack Nicklaus . . . I guess Willie's bought himself a house with Jack's tip just from this one tournament.

"But , you know, when Nicklaus first showed up here, nobody would touch his bag. We thought he was a big caddie to pick up Jack's bag and put it back down.

"He regrets it to this day."

For many in the Masters crowd there has only been one great golfer: Arnold Palmer.

"I think the whole world is happy today," beamed Augustan cab driver Bob Jackson. "Arnold is back up on the leader board."

"I've lived in Augusta for 30 years," said Mac Daniel, "And I never knew there was a golf tournament here until Palmer won in 1958. Since then, the town and the tournament haven't stopped growing."

The loudest cheers of this tournament have, once again, been for Palmer, even though he is 48 and his chances for victory are slim.

Friday, a Palmer eagle at the 15th received that sweetly sad ritual of spring: The Can-Arnie-Do-It Debate.

Palmer's hair is now a sensatorial off-white, his waist line not totally under control, his neck so turned to alligator leather by the sun and years that he wears his collar fashionably turned up.

However, when it is time to drill a 240-yard three-wood into the wind on the 15th hole, few are better than Palmer, the man with the pipefitter's hands and the blacksmith 's back.

When asked what the crowd's reaction had been to his 10-foot eagle putt, Palmer grinned and said, "Hardly any noise at all."

At other tournaments, Palmer sometimes seems less than dignified - an aging millionaire businessman still trying to beat the kids.

However Augusta is Palmer's perfect stage, a course practically built to his specifications.

"This is the ultimate gambler's course," said Tom Weiskopf, offering a mixed compliment. "Each of the 18 holes has a way to entice you into taking a chance."

To Palmer's credit, he no longer fans his fame by pretending to think that his chances of winning another major tournament are particularly good.

"Even today," said Palmer after his Friday 69, "I got into the same old rut that I fall into very frequently these days. When I miss a few putts, my attitude gets bad . . . I missed six makeable putts in the first 10 holes. My secret is that I use a different putting stroke on every hole."

Nevertheless, during Masters week, even Palmer and his Army are permitted spring-time drams.

"After that eagle," said Palmer, "I played the last three holes on a high. I felt like I used to feel all the times."

Masters pressure is the best kind: it reveals character.

"I took me two weeks to brainwash myself into being ready to play this tournament," said Lee Trevino. "It takes me that long to work up the courage to drive up that front yard."

Between the fast greens, gambling shots, huge crowds, social stuffiness and the enormous fringe benefits to the winner, most players expose their true emotions.

Johnny Miller, for instance, had these reactions as he waited to see if he would make the cut at 149.

"Maybe somebody'a trying to teach me super humility," said Miller who has turned from golden boy into tin man in just three years.

"I'm not sure what I need. Maybe a year off. If I had any brains, I'd spend four months just looking at old videotapes of myself when I was shooting those low 60s. Just let it sink back into my subconscious - the address and picked the ball up out of the cup."

Miller has lived the old saying that you meet the same people on the way down that you met on the way up. For Miller, it has been painful.

"I was never one of the boys because the game came so easy for me," he said. "Other players kind of resented my success. They thought I was possessed or just incredibly lucky.

"Now I'm playing so bad that I'm not one of the boys now, either. I'm not good enough to be one of them.

"I don't even feel like the same guy playing golf anymore. My long swing is one of the worst out here."

As Hale Irwin, the lead, entered the Augusta locker room, Miller became guilty that he was talking while Irwin was ignored.

"I shoot 149 and get the reporters," Miller said to Irwin, apologetically.

Joe Inman, a surprise contender all week, put his finger on the Masters' special dimension.

"When you get on this Augusta course, it's a given fact that you're going to get nailed. The variable is how you accept it.

"Some players never learn to accept misfortune, especially in the major tournaments. You have to remember that you're not God's only child of misfortune."

Bobby Jones built this 7,040-yard aboretum to be an emotional roller-coaster. Half the holes on the course pay like par-4 1/2. The par-4s are created for bogeys and the par 5s for birdies.

"If we had to play Augusta National in one hour, the best athlete would win the Masters," said Inman, laughing. "But as it is, they give us time to hang ourselves.

"Every swing is a 'though shot'. So instead of the best athlete, you end up with the best thinker as the winner.

"The Masters is a perfect example of how the pressure of golf - and the buildup about how important it is - can change you so that you hardly know yourself," said Inman.

"If every player out here took a tape recording of himself every years and just talked about what was important to him in his life and what his priorities were, most of us would be shocked when we went back and listened to ourselves."

Inman looked out at the flowering lawns, the chic crowds, the television towers.

"I love all of this," he said. "I just wish I were a better player so that I could be more a part of it.

But whenever I see everything that goes on here, it just reminds me that I have only one goal in golf - to leave it with my sanity."