On the sixth hole at Augusta National today, Hale Irwin stubbed a five-foot birdie putt, then leaped at the ball and raked it back toward him, as you and I might after something similarly dreadful on some public pasture. He turned and grinned sheepishly at his playing partner, Jack Nicklaus. Today was the last time the Masters would be fun.

The day before the Masters often is as special as any during the tournament, for it is the last time many of the world's best players are at the top of their game and also relaxed, the only time a golf devotee might see a twosome of Arnold Palmer and Gary Player followed by a threesome of Isao Aoki, Ken Venturi and Gene Sarazen.

Golf penalizes ability, not age, and this tournament is unique because the day before the game's present masters go after each other with five-irons, they mingle with the past masters on a nine-hole, par-27 course whose greens are slicker than any they will face later in the week.

"We used to train for the Masters, walk long distances on the beach because of all the hills," Sarazen was saying, sitting on the clubhouse veranda, looking off into the distance and adding: "It's sorta like reliving your (golfing) life when you come back each year.

"I look out there and think of (Bobby) Jones, of Eisenhower and so many others.When I'd finish the golf most days here, I'd go have a drink with Jones. He'd kid me sometimes, say, 'I'm surprised you're here today. If you're playing badly, you usually don't come over.' "I miss him very much. I miss Hogan and Armour and all the rest." He laughed. "I even miss Clifford Roberts."

In his 80th year, Sarazen is one of the last Masters threads. In his familiar knickers and two-tone shoes, he takes us back almost to the beginning, to when the tournament was little more than Jones playing four rounds with a select group of friends before galleries that did not go much beyond family.

"Jones and Roberts told me I made the tournament," he said, referring to the most famous shot in golf history, the 232-yard four-word that dived into the 15th hole for the final-round double eagle that allowed him to tie Craig Wood in the second Masters, in 1935. He won the 36-hole playoff by five shots.

"For 50 bucks," he said. "Yep, that's what I got for the playoff. I won $750 in all. My caddie was called Stove Pipe. He was a minister in town, and every day he'd come up to me and say: 'Mr. Gene, the collections are very poor.' He was hoping I'd get the hint."

Sarazen was allowing his mind to wander after he had drawn most of the largest galleries and two of the loudest cheers of the par-3 tournament today. Some of the whipper-snappers would mutter as he walked slowly down the short fairways: "Who's the old guy?" Usually, somebody would snap, "Sarazen," and offer a look of disgust that such a ninny was allowed inside the sacred grounds.

Aoki won the par-3 contest with a total of five-under-par 22. He was two strokes ahead of Gary Player, John COOK AND AMATEUR robert Tway.

The Sarazen threesome was an ideal pairing, for it included Venturi, who may still be privately fuming at himself for not winning as an amateur here in '56, and Aoki, probably the game's best player inside 100 yards. And on the second hole the old man showed the young pups the way home.

Sarazen's wedge shot had landed on the fringe 15 feet above the pin, and as he acknowledged applause every step of the way, he was not looking forward to the putt. Golfers have found just one way to stop a ball on tilted glass -- and damned if ancient Gene didn't still have it in his bag.

He one-putted.

This small, stylish gentleman with the farmer's hands and who looks like your great-grandfather, stroked the ball as gently as possible and silently gasped as it seemed to gather speed with each revolution. He was afraid of the ultimate embarrassment for a master: being on the green in one and off in two.

Instead, there was a glorious ending. The ball, bless it, found the hole and leaped inside. The response was Palmerlike, the warmest affection Augusta knows. Sarazen laughed, knowing the amount of luck involved, and flapped his arms.

And then made birdie five holes later, with a 15-foot uphill putt.

In all, he made more birds than many of the men who have a chance to win the Masters. He will not rejoin the tour, though. At 79, he has not suddenly stumbled onto a golfing fountain of youth near a fair way bunker. While Sarazen was one-putting twice for birds, he was three-putting six times for bogey -- and enjoying the attention every step of the way.

A teen-ager pushed through the crowd when the round was over, slipped Sarazen a piece of paper and a pen for an autograph and gushed: "My grandfather's still got one of your old scorecards from Augusta National, and I want to tell him I've met you."

Later, Sarazen told some reporters he would grant them five minutes of his time and then seemed willing to go on for five hours. He has won anywhere from 18 to 67 legitimate tournaments in his life, but counts just seven.

"The majors are all I care about," he said. "The two U.S. Opens, the Masters, the British Open and the three PGAs. None of that Australian Open or Hawaiian Open for me."

He does not mind at all being cherished for just one shot.

"The next time on the fairway at 15," he said, "I said to Stove Pipe, 'You'd think they'd have a monument or something to me out here by now.' He said, 'They spilt a little Italian rye over the spot.'

"Before the tournament in '55, they built a bridge over part of the pond that fronts the 15th green and named it for me. During the ceremonies, they lined up all the best players in the world 232 yards away and let 'em shoot at the flag. Nobody came close."