Rain fell in spring torrents on Augusta National this afternoon. It was just as well. These soft April days of Masters preamble are meant more for recollection than preparation. "you don't come to Augusta to find your game," Gene Sarazen said. "you come here because you've got one."

Golfers scampered to the shelter of grill and locker room, veranda and loft. There the young and old of gold spun their tales of what has happened here in 46 years -- and of those things that almost happened.

Masters week is like a stroll through a photo album. A benign atmosphere of unreality surrounds everything. Glance anywhere and you will find people lost in reverie. Under the oaks and the wisteria, or even sitting under a tree on the course, people seem to drift into a daze.

This is a place with no present tense. Cathedrals have a similar quality, and the mansions of state. But they don't cover 365 acres, nor do they often create such ambiance. This is life in its buffed and burnished form. Even the oldest men, on their canes and last legs, seem quaint, rather than decrepit.

Any Masters is every Masters: this is golf's equivalent of suspended animation. Here, nature seems gnarled, yet ever young.

"this is where the gold world gathers -- a special place set aside for beauty and springtime. You only see it, and remember it, as it exists in this one most beautiful week of the year," PGA Commissioner Deane Beman said today.

"spring was designed like an old set of MacGregor irons -- to rejuvenate the soul," Beman said, a bit sheepish at getting carried away.

Among professional athletes, perhaps only golfers, as a group, would be sympathetic to the moments of calm transport that Bobby Jones intended of create here with his 18 chapels carved out of the Georgia woods.

"i get so sentimental and starry-eyed when I get here that I can't play," Ben Crenshaw said, laughing. "sometimes , I wish it all didn't get to me so much."

The Masters is a carefully arranged illusion of order and civility in a larger world that casually disrespects such things. That, perhapes, is why golfers hold on so tightly to their Augusta memories, as though they were kept in a separate and more exclusive treasure chest of thye mind.

"i watched Arnold (Palmer) win his first Masters in '58," Beman said. "my brother and I jumped the fence behind the fourth hole and spent the day ducking security guards while we followed him.

"By the next year, I had been chosen for the U.S. Walker Cup team. drove right up Magnolia Lane as a guest of the club. They said, 'come right in, Mr. Beman.' And they gave me a room in the Crow's Nest in the cupola above the clubhouse."

First memories of the Masters tend to blot out all others -- even moments of victory, or near-victory.

"i never wanted to see this course until I could see it as a player," said Andy Bean, born in Georgia and reared within driving distance. "i earned my way through those gates."

Golf has no jitters like Masters jitters.

"i start choking as soon as I drive up Magnolia Lane," Gary Player said. To which Lee Trevino retorted, "so do I. But I can never figure out how to stop."

"i get too jazzed up," Johnny Miller said. "the first round has killed me for 10 straight years."

As a professional in the Masters, Miller has played the first round 25 strokes over par, while playing the rest of his rounds 34 under par.

"my putting just can't stand the pressure of the first round," Miller said. "the Masters is the first major tournament of the year and the first major shock to your nervous system. After i miss my first 12 three-footers, I recover from the initial blow. But by then I'm out of the tournament."

This year, Miller, who has been runner-up here twice, has a novel solution.

"i'm pretending that Wednesday is my first round," he said, not joking in the least. "i'm going to play it just like a tournament round, take it and hope I get my 75 out of my system."

The Masters coma is at the heart of all the Augusta lore. What happens to a man when he discovers himself in the lead on Sunday, then self-destructs?

The last ywo years have produced two of the most vivid examples in Hubert Green and Ed Sneed, a pair of third-round leaders by three and five shots, respectively.

Green, after missing a three-foot putt that would have forced a playoff and savd his dignity, went back out to the 18th green at sundown -- 70 minutes after his disaster -- to stroke his putt again.

"i had to find out if I misread it or mis-hit it," Green said.

When it didn't count, Green made it.

"i read it right," the crestfallen Green said. "when the presure was on, I just didn't hit it straight."

Sneed, who led by three shots with three holes to play last year, only to finish bogey-bogey-bogey and lose in a playoff, has survived a year of the most horrific nightmares.

"i blew it. It was mine and I gave it away," Sneed said. "after I made birdie at the 15th, I thought I had won. Thousands of people started running for the clubhouse like it was all over.

"i think, subconsciously, that I believed them. I had fought so long to hold it together that something inside me turned off and I couldn't get it started again. That coild of concentration kind of sprung . . . and you can't get it back.

"i can accept that . . . even learn from it," Sneed said. "but it's been a lot harder on the people around me. It's harder for my wife and the rest of my family to keep answering the questions than it is for me."

A growing trend of strategy among younger tour players is to cultivate an air of nonchalance, bordering on disdain, toward the Masters. After all, Trevino always has said, "if they renamed it the Hartford Open, everybody would shoot 265. Take away the pressure and all these young bucks would shoot the lights out."

Last year, Fuzzy Zoeller joked and swaggered his way to a green coat and first year he saw the course.

"maybe I don't know what I did," Zoeller said, grinning. In defiance of the paralysis-through-analysis history of the Masters, he put himself entirely in the hands of his caddie and, in his own words, "never had a thought all week."

Bruce Lietzke, another young belter who was sixth last year in his second Masters, has a similar approach and is a pretournament favorite of several fellow players.

"bruce has a new Trans-Am with a 500 engine," Crenshaw said, snickering. "he says that on Thursday, he's going to do a burn-out up Magnolia Lane, go into a full skid and come to a stop at the clubhouse door going backwards.

"i envy the loose guys like Zoeller and Lietzke. Maybe I've read too many golf history books," Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw is more familiar with that sinking, helpless feeling at Augusta. In 1977, going head to head with Jack Nicklaus in the final Sunday pairing, Crenshaw watched disaster swallow him. He was a spectator at his own demise.

"whatever I had had for three days just left. could feel the confidence seeping away -- out the wrists," Crenshaw said. "the swing slot was gone, then everything was gone. It was the most silent 76 of my life.

"to sum it up, I felt quite inadequate."

Augusta National was created with one purpose in mind: to mercilessly unravel a psyche under stress. Caprice and almost unbearable ill fortune are built into the course.

Once, Byron Nelson hit a near-perfect iron shot into the par-3 16th hole, only to see the ball hit the flagstick a foot above the hole and bounce back into the water.

"that's nothing," Crenshaw said. "toney Penna hit that stick two years in a row and both times it trickled all the way back down into the lake."

Over the years, certain holes become personal nemeses to great golfers.Nicklaus hit three balls last year into the water in front of the 15t, which has become his ritual undoing. The 14th "is not a hard hole for anyone except Tom Watson," says Tom Watson. "he always leaves it below the mound in front of the green, then three putts.

"when Tom Watson does get it over the mound," Watson said, "then he three-putts from six feet and loses by one shot (in 1978)."

"everything is designed to mislead you, trick you into making an unwise decision," said Lee Elder, now playing in his fifth Masters. "then, you're twice as mad at yourself.

"my fondest memory of Augusta is the way old Cliff Roberts met me the first year I arrived and tried to make me feel accepted," said Elder, the first black to break the Masters color line, in 1975. "he even followed me around the course once.

"but it wasn't really Mr. Roberts that I needed. You need the spirit of Bobby Jones to keep you company. He's still the only one who knows how to play this course."

The problems here, the elaborate tactical discussions, never change. They seem as eternal as the oaks and azaleas. Just this year, the eighth green was restored to its original position and design. "they realized that Jones had it right all along," Watson said. "it's much better now."

Every year, the miseries of golf's hallowed ground are passed along. A rookie asks Watson why he waits so long at the 12th tee before hitting over Rae's Creek, when his normal pace of play is quick.

"you must wait for the wind, no matter how long," Watson replied. "you decide what shot you'll hit before you get there. Then wait for the (swirling) wind to match the shot. Don't look at the wind, then try to pick your shot.

"the wind mustn't dictate to you. If you study the flags, the trees, the willows for enough years, you'll learn how to read the wind."

That is the essence of Augusta: reading the winds in the pines, feeling the air on you cheek exactly three seconds before you know it will arrive at Hogan Bridge.

Nothing changes, Sarazen has been telling about his double eagle in 1935 since before most of today's pros were born. Like a statue, or an elm in plus-fours, Sarazen, now 78, stands before the clubhouse, looking out over golf's equivalent of the Elysian Fields. His homeric retelling of the Masters' greatest story never varies; the embellishments were locked in place decades ago.

"my caddie 'Stovepipe' tried to talk me into hitting a three-wood," Sarazen begins. "but I took out mu 'turf-rider' (four wood) instead.

"the moment I hit it, I felt something in my bones. Walter Hagen was playing with me and Jones was on the green. Twenty-one people were behind the green. The sun was going down. I wasn't sure it had gone in the hole until I saw all 21 people jumping up and down."

To those who arrive here for the first time, no venue in sports could seem so elite, so forbidding, so inhospitable. And for just those reasons, with the passage of years, no place in sports gradually becomes so like a protected home, a fortress that is impregnable to all but those who have proved that they belong.

"i'll never forget Sam Snead fishing the night before the tournament in (Dwight) Eisenhower Pond (on Augusta's adjoining par-3 course)," said Dave Stockton, a veteran of 10 Masters. "he caught a 10-pound small-mouth bass, which was close to the world record.

"sam couldn't wait to tell everybody. But he also didn't want anybody to know where he caught it, since there might be another one in there even bigger.

"so Sam sneaks through the trees, not knowing I saw him. Then he breaks into a run and carries that fish right into the Past Champions Dinner. He never changed clothes. And he and that fish never left the (formal) dinner until there wasn't anybody left to hear the story of how he caught it."

Any Masters is, in the best sense, every Masters. This week is less a golf tournament than a recurring state of mind, a chance to recapture those moments of peaceful clearsightedness that blossom here under gentle Georgia breezes and spring rains.

The Masters bears little relationship to the rest of golf, or, for that matter, to the rest of life.

Wisely, it has set itself no higher goals than the annual regeneration of a feast of memories.