At most golf tournaments, even major championships, it is almost impossible to sensibly predict the winner, and which dozen names might be on Sunday's final leader board.

In this, an in most matters, the Masters is different.

One of this event's shameless prides is that it does everything possible to help the cream of the sport -- the established champions -- add another jewel to their crowns.

At the 44th Masters, three-quarters of the far from elite field of just 91 probably can be eliminated from the serious consideration befores the first tee shot Thursday.

Pick a properly predictable dozen names, and you probably would have a 90 percent chance of having the winner's name in that group.

This year, that Masters dozen might be: Andy Bean, George Burns, Ray Floyd, Lou and David Graham Hubert Green, Bruce Lietzke, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Craig Stadler and Tom Watson.

Over the past 21 years, since Arnold Palmer won his first Masters, two types of golfers have prospered at Augusta National Golf Club: Hall of Famers and a few steady, competent pros in their prime.

A dozen times since 1958, the winner has been Nicklaus, Player or Palmer, Watson, Floyd and Billy Gasper each have won once. Five of these six are among golf's top seven career money winners. Floyd is 12th.

The other Master's winners, who some might consider motley, are surprisingly high in all-time cash gathering: George Archer (22), Charlie Coody (23), Tommy Aaron (29), Gay Brewer (36), Bob Goalby (49) and Fuzzy Zoeller, who at 28 already has won more than $500,000. No bums are allowed to wear green coats here.

Golf's richest tournament -- last months Tournament Players Championship -- is a shootout among the tour's top 14 money winners of the previous year. Golf's most glamorous festival -- the Master's -- is, by contrast, a sort of old home week of established greats.

The primary reason for this is the Augusta National course itself. The 7,030-yard layout favors long drivers who can draw their tee shots, high-and-soft-iron hitters and slick-green putters with pressure-tested nerves.

That does a whole lot of weeding out immediately. Even as great a player as Lee Trevino said today, "I'll probably never win here unless they put the pins on the tees and the tees on the greens. Then, it would be a fader's course, not a hooker's course. I hit it low and left to right. This course rejects me like a skin transplant."

Also, perhaps no other course rewards experience and longevity as much as Augusta does. Of the four majors, it's the only one on a permanent site. Once a top player has ths course wired, he can play it in his sleep for a decade, almost never leaving the top five.

Palmer ran off a 10-year skein when he finished 1-3-1-2-1-9-1-2-4-4. Nicklaus has ripped off strings of 1-2-1-1 and 2-1-3-4-1-3-2.

Currently, Watson is on the tear, finishing 1-2-2 the last three years. He missed a playoff in 1978 by bogeying the last hole, then lost in a three-way playoff to Zoeller in 1979.

"You should play this course better and better the longer you come here, Watson said. "Experience means more here than in any tournament. You here than in any tournament.You should learn some subtlety every round at Augusta.

"Everything looks open, but there are fairways within the fairways and greens within the greens. It's deceptive.

"Especially," Watson said, "you have to know where you can miss and wherenot to miss. There are a few key disasters you have to avoid -- particularly the water at 11, 12, 13, 15 and 16.

"My game is in limbo right now -- not too good, not too bad. I'm still searching for that little extra confidence to turn my ignition on. But, on this course, if I think well and fight well, I can be in contention at the end. I feel now just about like I didd before '78, but not as good as '77 or '79.

Even so small a thing as the proper caddle is a reward for longevity here.

"I switched caddies my frist three years here and never played too well," Watson said."Now, I've had Leon McClattie for three years in a row, and I'm not giving him up.

"Most important is for your caddie not to get down on you. I had one mutter, 'Not again,' after I hit a bad shot. I said, 'That's the last time you say that, buddy. I'm not tryin' to hit 'em crooked out here. Get down on me and you're back in the caddie shed."

Once a Watson or a Nicklaus is on Augusta National's wave length -- once he has the right strategy, the right shots, the right caddie, the right nerves, the right experience -- he never should be far from contention.

"This is the event I've pointed for and worked for all spring," Nicklaus said today. "This is the first real test of all the improvements in my grip and in my short game that I think I've made with all my practice.

"I've tried to win and I've come close (losing a playoff at Doral last month)," Nicklaus said. "But this is the first time this year that I'd say I absolutely wanted a win."

And, as he knows, this may be his best chance for an 1980 major. Even last year, playing poorly, he missed the playoff by one shot.

While Watson and Nicklaus know what they should do, others look for the last piece in a personal puzzle -- the sort of gizmo, like Ray Floyd's last-second discovery of a pet five-wood that helped him shoot 271 in 1976, that presages a green coat.

"Whatcha got there," Ed Sneed teased Ben Crenshaw in the locker room, eyeing an ancient sand wedge in Crenshaw's hand.

"Oh, just something I got in the mail," Crenshaw replied.

Actually, it is a 1957 Wilson wedge that is considered vintage. "See the tiny red arrow on the hotel?" Crenshaw asked with a grin. "That identifies the model. I've been looking for one for years.

"There are three 'psychological' clubs in your bag, especially for this course. The driver, the putter and the sand wedge. They can make more difference than the rest. You'll see a lot of guys fiddling trying to find a special club for this week."

When Gene Sarazen played here, after inventing the sand wedge in his work shop in 1932, he carried the new club under his coat, or turned it face down when other players approached.

Next to new clubs, and new psychs, are personal panaceas.

Bean has taken extra time off, so his concentration won't burn out so quickly or his temper flare so fast.

Lee Elder, now that his 1979 Ryder Cup berth gives him a Masters exemption through '81, vows that for the first time he can stop playing the course defensively to make a good showing and gamble more the way the course was intended to be played."

Past champ George Archer has appeared with a goatee, the equivalent in impact on tour of an NFL player getting a sex-change operation.

The most jubilant, and conspicuous, 'new man' on the premises, however, is Johnny Miller, who won at Inverrary and is 15th on this season's cash list after years in purgatory.

"When I was winning everything, I think people saw me as a guy who had too much and got it too easy" Miller said. "It wouldn't have bothered them if I fell in a lake. I don't think too many tears were shed for me.

"Now, I'm a sort of prodigal son returning. Before, maybe people admired me. But now, they seem to like me. I never expected that would happen to me."

So the kings of golf have gathered here. This is their joust. It is unlikely that anyone who does not already own a major crown will gain one here.

"I've never been to heaven," said Zoeller who finally has his game straightened out after a long post-Masters slump. "And, thinkin' back on my life, I probably won't get a chance to go. I guess the Masters is as close as I'm going to get."