No fact of the 43rd Masters was half so intriguing,not half so difficult to assess, as Ed Sneed's self-inflicted defeat Easter Sunday.

It was a trespass, witnessed by tens of millions, that appeared almost too black for redemption: Sneed's sin was taking the apple in golf's Eden.

"I would like to congratulate Ed Sneed on a job almost well done," said fellow runner-up Tom Watson at the ceremony where Fuzzy Zoeller collected his green coat.

Sneed's collapse-for it will be called that more often than it will be called Zoeller's playoff victory-was defined with brutal clarity: it was a misleading fact of the first order.

No man ever squandered so large a last-round Masters lead-five shots.

Sneed, who had made just one bogey over 57 consecutive holes, made six of the fiendish things in the last 15 holes on Sunday. Worst of all, Sneed threw away all of a three-shot lead with three holes to play-finishing bogey-bogey-bogey, as he missed tree putts shorter than his own arm span.

"Sneed'll have to have an oxygen mask to finish," said one spectator, watching Sneed labor on the early holes.

"Sneed seems to have something lodged in his throat," chimed in another.

That, unfortunately, will probably be Sneed's legacy from the finest performance of his 11-year pro career.

But the small facts, lost far out on the course in a welter of detail, tell a compensating truth: that Sneed battled unblinkingly for 20 holes, sometimes paralyzing himself with analysis, but never showing anything less than the grit of a near-champion.

For those who saw every Sneed swing-from the practice tee to the final playoff sand shot that burned the edge of the last hole-his pilgrim's progress was a sort of rich Easter parable.

At the first tee, Sneed was greeted by a wind that blew directly in his face. Soon, Sneed would meet another foe, the Augusta National-the real Augusta with greens, mown to the nub and fourth-round pin placements set (Augustans say) by Pontius Pilate.

One reason so many Masters seem to end in excruciating drama is the nature of the course itself-Bobby Jones' monument to his own powerful intellect and knowledge of the athletic soul under stress.

Jones, the champion golfer and Harvard literature major, understood that golfers under pressure only exist in two states: aggressive, confident, devil-may-care on one hand, or timid, unsure, self-eroding on the other. Good shots breed bravery, errors beget an almost nauseous cowardice of the will.

Augusta is built to maximize these tournament tendencies. Every subtlety in design is geared to bunch the leaders on the last day. No course so favors audacity and punishes caution.

At the very first tee, Sneed began to learn what was in store. He hooked his drive-weak and short. He hooked an iron-weak and short-into a trap.

Then he learned the other half of the day's truth: for every blunder he would reach within himself for a corresponding act of heroism. His sand blast at the first green stopped inches from the cup to save par.

The entire front nine was just such a roller coaster.

By the time Sneed missed a par putt of six feet at the 10th, thousands craned their necks to see if Sneed's lead would dwindle to one almost meaningless stroke. One of those on tip-toe, standing on the back of the 15th tee looking down over heads, was Jack Nicklaus.

When Sneed missed, Nicklaus later admitted he thought, "If I can come in with a 68, I'll win outright." In other words, Nicklaus, in his own mind, pronounced Sneed dead at that point.

Sometimes, however, when a player reaches a point of utter self-disgust, his anger cuts to the roots of that vine of self-doubt that is gradually entwining him.

So it was for Sneed. He went in an instant from chump to champ. At 12, he gunned for the pin, hit the notorious back trap, then made a fabulous sand shot that stopped a foot from the hole.

Sneed had righted himself. At the 13th, he pitched to four feet for birdie. His tee-shot at the 14th went far right into trees, but Sneed hit a recovery shot of green-coat quality, punching an iron with a restricted swing to the front fringe below the green's swail. When he drilled home a 10-foot putt to save par, Sneed punched his fist in the air.

Surely, this man was a champion.

The 15th was his finest hour. After playing the prodigal for so long, Sneed won back his commanding margin, wedging over water to six feet for another birdie and a three-stroke lead.

As that putt fell, thousands of spectators deserted the picturesque 15th-16th amphitheater stands. In an instant, the tournament seemed to end as dusk began to settle.

Sneed surrendered to the mood. Caution became his guiding thought once more.

The safe side of the 16th green is the three-putt side. So Sneed hit it there, and three-putted for bogey.

Of all Augusta's undulating greens, the 17th is the most vicious. So Sneed missed a putt of less than four feet as his lead shrank to one shot.

Sneed's day had been lifetimes long. The wheels could come off once and be repaired. But not twice.

It was no surprise that Sneed performed well in the playoff, parring both difficult holes, barely missing a winning birdie on the first.

"In a playoff, I go right for the hole," Sneed said, "That's the only way. You have to gamble."

And that, of course, is the only way to win the Masters.

On Easter Sunday, Augusta National preached another of its brilliant sermons. Ed Sneed had the misfortune to be the text. CAPTION: Picture, Ed Sneed