Golf's major tournaments are a marriage of tactics and technique, nerves and luck.

Of those four majors, none represents the ideal toward which they all aspire as well as does the Masters at Augusta National.

From week to week on the pro golf tour, fame and cash go to those who do the game's simplest and most athletic tests the best: hit it long and straight, then putt the ball in the hole.

Such virtues, of course, are always rewarded. But, at the majors, they are merely an adjunct to a bustle mental game of pretournament preparation and midround poise.

The extra dimension that gives the Masters its drama is its accentuation of golf's mental demands. Perhaps no golf tournament in the world can match the Masters for the emphasis it places on subtleties -- both in play and in tactics.

That, almost certainly, is why it appeals to the average golfer watching on television. Since his game has severe limitations, he must play with his head -- minimizing disasters, choosing when to play safe or gamble, conceptualizing the best way to nurse the ball around a course that frightens him as much as it tempts him.

"Winning a major tournament is like walking a tightrope," said 1979 PGA champion David Graham, who is tied for third place here.

"Until you've made it all the way once, you'd be a fool not to have your doubts. But once you have, you say, 'That was damn tough, but it can be done -- if you take one careful step at a time.

"Of all the courses in the world," said the Australian-born international pro, "Augusta National places the most emphasis on strategy and is the best example of what a major is about.

"Every shot here offers an option. That's the key.

"You've always got a safe side of the fairway or the green to aim at where you know you can find your ball sitting on short grass. But from those safe spots, you are not, by any means, guaranteed par.

"From the wrong sides of the fairways, you have much tougher approaches and from the safe sides of the greens, you put enormous pressure on your putter. Caution here is an invitation to make bogeys."

Or as Andy Bean says, "Put the ball in the preferred positions on these greens and you can be bold. Put it in the 'wrong' spots where you're going downhill or over knobs, and you're scared to death. As soon as you get to your ball, you know you're out of luck. You're gonna be on that green for a while."

"On almost every shot," Graham explained, "there is also a more dangerous shot available which promises greater rewards. But those shots also invite double bogeys.

"So, every hole can be played cautiously with the probability of making par but the danger of getting jittery and making bogey. Or you can risk real trouble but have a good chance for a birdie."

The problem is not whether to gamble, but where to gamble. And the answer is different for every golfer, depending on the parameters of his game, his nerves and his temperament.

"We play many courses which effectively eliminate thought," Graham snarled. "You have traps on both sides of a flat fairway and traps on all four sides of the green. You step up and aim at the center of an obvious target area every time.

"You have no options, no room for strategy."

In other words, the game is more a measure of the pure athletic ability -- who can hit it straight and long most often. That's why the tour is a proof of the depth of raw golf talent that is now on the scene.

But, in many cases, it is unpolished, untested and rather simplistic talent.

The majors are made for the shot masters, the innovators, the wise gamblers who know themselves.

"On most of the new courses we play," Graham says, disdainfully, "from 80 yards and in, it's automatic that you use a sand wedge. Everybody just throws the same wedge shots at the pin.

"At Augusta, however, the greens guard themselves by virtue of their nice rolls and slopes and undulations. You don't need traps everywhere. Therefore, you're offered a variety of possible chips, pitches and pitch and runs. That demand for variety means that both judgment and execution are being tested."

The Masters is proud that the average age of its champions is a relatively mature 33 -- an athletic age that symbolizes the last years of youthful strength and the first years of full maturity, composure and masterly shotmaking.

Even the most talented players here do not win until their games reflect some of the chastening of age and experience.

For instance, the hottest player here, behind Seve Ballesteros, during the first two rounds was Australian firebrand Jack Newton -- a chap of bold gifts and bad moods.

"Jack has all the shots to win here," says Newton's teacher, Phil Ritson of Orlando, Fla., "but he himself may not yet be ready to win."

Newton began the Masters with birdies on six of the first seven holes -- his atonement for blowing up on Sunday here last year when he started the day tied with eventual winner Fuzzy Zoeller.

"I kept asking myself what day it was," said Newton's partner that day, Bill Kratzert. "The way he was playing, I thought it must'a been a practice round."

Yet Ritson foretold the demise of his pupil before it happened. "Look at him," said Ritson, watching Newton slam clubs into the turf or flip them about after minor pieces of bad luck. "The lad's leading the Masters and he's throwing clubs.

"You must accept indifferent shots and expect the intervention of fate in a tournament like this," said Ritson with a thick British accent.

For two days, Newton attacked every shot -- amassing eight birdies and an eagle. "If the shot is there, play it," was his hell-bent motto. Yet he failed to accept his inevitable misfortunes.

So, after 31 holes here, Newton found himself alone in second place. And, just five holes and four bogeys later, he was in a 10-way tie for 12th place. That's what the Masters does to immature club tossers and fate cursers.

At the Masters, the ability to play the type of shot that the course demands is of paramount importance. The 485-yard 10th hole, par 4 that begins the Amen Corner, is a perfect example.

"Gary Player hit an ugly little neck hook down the (proper) left side, and I hit a solid drive down the (improper) right side," relates big-hitter Bean. "Because Gary's ball was on the right line, it rolled 50 extra yards to the flat bottom.

"I had a 207-yard one-iron from a downhill lie. Player had a 162-yard seven-iron from a level lie. He made birdie. I got bogey."

Because such a premium is placed on certain shots -- especially right-to-left tee shots, high soft irons, long swinging lag putts, and delicate little pitch and runs -- players feel extra pressure to prepare the technical aspects of their games specifically for the Masters.

Jack Nicklaus, for instance, has, in the last three months, changed his grip, flattened his swing plane, and spent weeks fiddling with a panoply of tricky short shots that he never thought were necessary before.

"It's almost a tragedy to watch Jack," says Ritson, one of the game's more respected swing doctors. "He built his game around a fat man's swing and it served him beautifully for years.

"That upright swing and the flying elbow never bothered him.

"Then, when he lost weight, he had a swing that looked strange with his new physique. He kept winning for a few years because of his great putting and his great confidence and intelligence.

"But many of us suspected that, sooner or later, his swing would break down and be undependable. Last year, he was almost a wreck -- pulling or pull-hooking so many shots to the left.

"Now, there seems to be no telling how many pros he's seeing for advice. George Burns told me last week that Jack had worked with five different teachers in one day. The great man seems a bit desperate to me."