"The course is not intended so much to punish severly the wayward shot as to reward adequately the stroke played with skill-and judgment."

-Bobby Jones, 1949

The azaleas are ablaze here, delicate flowers of the deepest imaginable pink-a shade that somehow suggests distant kinship with the blushing rose, and perhaps a brief but memorable liasion with a violet deep in the roots of the family tree.

It is littel wonder that people who meander down Magnolia Lane, past the portals of the Augusta National Golf Club, sometimes muse that they really have passed through pearly gates and entered golf heaven.

"I told my wife the other day that if God played golf, he'd play it here." So said native son Larry Nelson-a first-time invitee to the Masters Tournament, which begins here for the 3rd time on Thursday-of the course conceived a half-century ago by the late, great Georgian Bobby Jones and Scotsman Alistair Mackenzie, who regrettably did not live enough to see a single tournament round played on his crowning achievement as a course architect.

There are many more difficult courses than Augusta National, and a handful more scenic. A number, by virtue of age, have deeper if less fascinating reservoirs of legend and lore.

But precious few are better, or more demanding of soundness in both strategy and execution. "The National," as it is frequently called, artfully blends the natural beauty of its terrain with human imagination to produce a test of golf involving a bare minimum of gimmickry.

Gary Player, a three-time winner and the defending champion of the Master, has said that Augusta National is "built for drama," a notion that captures the essence of its picturesque 7,040 yards.

The par-72 layout-especially the fabled back nine-offers the accomplished player a giddy variety of wild possibilities. It inspires both hope and ambition, and oftern fulfills them.

But for those who dreams exceed their means, it also provides harsh reqlities: woods, white sand, and the muddy waters of Rae's Creek and neighboring ponds. Other championship courses may be less forgiving of minor indiscretions, but Augusta exacts retribution for flagrant hubris, carelessness, or deficiency of skill.

Like all grand tests of golf it can neither be strangled by brute force nor teased into compliance with finesse alone. The masters winner must approach the par 5s aggressively, and the shorter holes with prudent self-restraint.

On several holes, the margin between pulse-quickening success and crushing heartbreak can be as tiny as the clubhead on a long iron or fairway wood. A man challenging for the Mastes green jacket must play boldly but also know the borders of foolhardiness. $"We hope," Jones once said of his intention for the course, "to make bogeys easy, if frankly sought, pars reading obtainable by standard good play, and birbies, except on par-5 holes, dearly bought."

A course built for drama

There is no rough at Augusta, nary a 5 o' clock shadow of tall grass, but more difficult that it appears at first glance. Subtle slopes and undulations-often flattened out by cameras to viewers watching on television-make the fairways play narrower, the greens smaller, than they actually are.

"Some of the greens are huge, but target area shrinks with the pin placements," says Ben Crenshaw, one of the great putters on the pro tour. The way they are banked, he says, reduces the parameters of makeable putts to a significant "green within the green."

Something of the same principle applies to the rolling fairways, which require shotsfrom uphill, downhill, sidehill and only rarely level stances. The pitch of the fairways dictates precise positioning of tee shots, even where the optimum route is not clearly defined by hazards.

The one real bias of a course painstakingly designed not to have any is its preference for high-ball hitters. Not because doglegs have to be cut or towering trees trqversed, but rather because the greens are uniformly firm, frequently elevated, and therefore hard to hold.

Even natural high-ball hittes like Crenshaw attempt to get more height on their shots at Augusta through minor technical refinements, while lowball hitters such as Lee Trevino (who, not conincidentally, has won every major little except the Masters) have to make more serious adjustments.

Washingtonian Lee Elder, playing tamper with his regular swing, but alters his clubs. A couple of weeks before the Masters, he goes to the workshop and bends the clubheads to give him one degree more loft than normal.

But this idiosyncracy aside, Augusta National provides a balanced test.

Clifford Roberts, the late cofounder of the Masters, said in his 1976 book, The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club, that the course never was intended to be "impossible to tame," and subpar rounds always have been regarded as testments to the players who achieved them rathe than insults to the course.

The course does not favor either a hook or a fade since Bobby Jones was adamant, in a 1920s discussion of which preferable, that he saw nothing wrong in hitting the ball straight. While some holes invite a player to draw his tee shot right-to-left, and others invite him to fade it left-to-right, none requires that either be done.

Good putting is necessary for good scoring because the contour of the fast greens ranges from severe to moderate, but never flat.

Long hitters have an advantage if they are also accurate because all four par 5s are reachable in two shots, but the importance of this should not be exagerate because of the ample hazards to discourage uncontrolled power.

A premium is placed on deft approach shots because the greens are near impossible to hold unless a shot is executed cleanly, imparting proper backspin.

Versatility is the only answer to the many nuances of Augusta. In four rounds, pratically every club in the bag is sure to come into play. There is nowhere to hide a faulty short game, or timidness with fairway woods or long irons, or a putter that gets jittery when faced with a slick downhill stroke.

There have been only a few major changes in Augusta National since it was built, other that the pivotal one of reversing the front and back nines after the first Masters in 1934-an inspired decision.

It is the back nine, at once fiendish and cherubic, that gives the course its finishing holes must be played with water on the brain, starting with No. 11-"White Dogwood," a 445-yard par-4 that begins the trio of holes celebrated collectively as "Amen Corner."

No. 12," Golden Bell," rings with praises as one of the great par 3s in the world-only 155 yards, but through precariously swirling winds to a well-bunkered green guarded by Rae's Creek.

Club selection is critical here, where the coming-home half of the course starts to crackle, making hopes soar or dashing them.

Large deficits can be made up on the back nine, as Art Wall epitomized by getting birdies on five of the last six holes to edge Cary Middlecoff and Arnold Palmer in 1959.

Likewis, seemingly comfortable leads can be squandered through play that is either too reckless hit song of that name, the challenger at the finish of the Masters must know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.

"I've competed in 22 Masters and I can tell you this-if you're in contention on Sunday afternoon, you need birdies on 13 and 15," Player wrote in this month's Golf Digest magazine. "Jones had the course structured with that in mind, and it's the primary reason why the Masters generates electricity down the homsestretch that is unmatched in any other tournament."

These par 58-the 485-yard dogleg left known as "Azalea" and the 520-yard straightaway called "Fire Thorn" to a green that is practically an island-are "the catalysts that bring the Masters alive on Sunday."

No.16, "Red Bud," is a 190-yard par 3 over water to a treacherously sloped green, while "Holly"-are straightish par 4s that can yield birdies if attackedthoughtfully.

A course built for drama.