Even now, as he stands on the verge of becoming one of the genuine stars in golf, one memory of Craig Stadler defines his past, hangs over his present and clouds his future.

The crowds are leaving the Amen Corner at the Masters, filing up the long 13th hole. One player has been left behind, sitting inconspicuously on a small hillside full of azaleas behind the 12th green. It is Stadler--his head in his hands, tears running down his face, sobbing uncontrollably.

"I just died back in that corner that day," he says now.

That moment in 1979, when he needed only a 70 to win the Masters and, instead, threw a wheel on his way to 76, defines Stadler's perhaps insoluble problem. In a sport that rewards a steely face, a cold eye, a willed denial of human emotions, Stadler can't stop being a person first and a golfer second.

"I'm basically an emotional person," says Stadler, whose three-round total of 208 leads the Doral Open here by one stroke, and who, if he finishes in the first 15, will move into the top spot as the leading money winner on the tour for '82.

"I know I'll never reverse it. If I come to the last hole and need a birdie and I leave a five-iron 40 feet to the right, I'll always get hot and say, 'Damn it' and fire away the club. But by the time I get to the next shot, I think I'm fine now. But people don't see that . . .

"I get over things a hell of a lot quicker than I used to," says the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder who already has won the Tucson Open this season. He would have won the prestigious Crosby at Pebble Beach, too, if he hadn't blown a five-shot lead on the final nine holes when he seemed to lose his composure just a little.

"I've watched myself the past six years just like everybody else has, and I've seen how it has hurt me. I've worked on it the last two years and it's gotten to the point where I think I control it . . ."

Today was the perfect example of Stadler's improvement. On the first six holes, he was unspeakably bad, making four bogeys and knocking himself from a two-shot lead to start the day off the top 10 leader board.

"Not again," he growled as a drive headed for the rough. "Oh, damn, go back to bed," he cursed himself as an iron flew through the green. "Hell, I guess it just doesn't matter," he sighed in complete self-disgust. "Where do we go from here? Ninety?"

Finally, after making a short par putt at the seventh, he led his small gallery in mock applause.

Then, the new Stadler appeared. Instead of clubs hurled off his bag and curses you can't print, he birdied the eighth, ninth, 12th and, at last, the 17th with an 80-foot putt to take back his lead. Then, after driving into the water at the 18th, he rolled in a 40-foot putt on the final green to save bogey and keep a one-shot margin.

"The odds are that, even a year ago, I wouldn't have saved this round," he said. And with it, perhaps, the tournament.

"My temper doesn't bother me a bit. But it obviously bothers other people a hell of a lot more than it does me. Just like Thursday, I played a hell of a round. In the paper here, they got a picture of me tossing my club right in the middle of the front page. 'Stadler tosses his wedge in disgust,' " says Stadler in disgust. "They don't say that I settled right down and made a damn good putt to save a bogey.

"It would be nice to go out on a golf course like this, shoot a 66 and just get some good solid press one day."

Because of Stadler's blast-furnace face, he is condemned to be judged by how he looks rather than by how he really feels.

That misperception bothers him as much as a triple bogey. After his collapse at Pebble Beach, "I opened up Sports Illustrated and they said I came out with terrible quotes that you wouldn't let your children hear. That's not true.

"I've turned into a decent player," he says, almost to himself. "I don't really need this."

But, surely, the TV picture didn't lie completely. Wasn't he annoyed at a cameraman at the 15th? And, after he pull-hooked a four-iron onto the rocks by the Pacific at the 71st hole, surely he was a man at the brink of athletic self-control. Wasn't he one scalded cat?

"Not at all," he insists. "It looked that way, but it wasn't."

The battle that Stadler is fighting--like Tommy Bolt and Tom Weiskopf and thousands of hackers--is the eternal golfing war between normal, fractious human nature and an extremely unnatural game.

More than any other game, perhaps, golf is about self-control, restraint of personality and the mastering of the emotions.

To all those old Scots and Puritans who loved to see the passions broken on the rack of the will, this would be the most moral of games.

To others, however, pro golf sometimes seems intrinsically perverse, like selling tickets to watch a holy man meditate. As with fighter pilots, the question is always the same: do these guys have the "right stuff," or have they killed the right stuff?

What we've got in Craig Stadler is a guy who looks like everybody's tough bartender with a rusty red mustache, a sunburned neck, the forearms of a jackhammer jockey. Toss in droopy pants, a trace of a gut and shaggy hair and you've got a fellow who gets the same fan reaction at nearly every hole: "He sure doesn't look like a golfer."

More to the point, Stadler does not have the conventional golfer's temperament. He just has too much of what the tour lacks--emotion.

Yet, at this moment, Stadler threatens to be one of The Golfers. As of now, he insists, "I don't think I've done that much. I've never won a major. I've been in the top 10 in all four of them, but I've never come close to winning one. That Masters was the closest."

Nevertheless, Stadler, after finishing eighth in money winnings in both 1980 and '81 ($208,291 and $218,829), will acknowledge that he feels he is just one short step from being among the game's top two or three players.

"My game is much more solid overall this year. I'm finally gettin' a little more consistent. Still not where I'd like it. I'm no Tom Kite (for week-to-week dependability). Last year, I missed eight cuts."

To understand Stadler's uniquely erratic style of play--after winning Tucson he missed the cut the next week--just look back at his formative years.

"I haven't had anybody work with me since I was 16," he says, a young age when, the first time he ever set foot on Doral's Blue Monster, he shot par 72. "I play by feel. I can feel it when my swing gets in a bad spot. I don't know what it is, but I just do little things to get it back in a comfortable position."

That's a nerve-wracking state of total self-dependence on the night before the final round of, say, the Masters.

What happens when Stadler goes sour, as he did twice for long stretches in '81?

"Fortunately, it hasn't happened yet (this year)."

If Stadler has no swing doctor to use as a psychic prop, the way Tom Watson has Stan Thirsk or Jack Nicklaus has Jack Grout, then Stadler does have the advantage of ever-increasing self-knowledge.

"I have a lot more touch than I have strength," says Stadler. "I've compacted my game a good 30 yards off the tee since I started the tour. And I'm not hitting 25 balls a year out of bounds.

"My short game, fortunately, has always been very good. When I'm beside the green, not getting up and down, no matter what kind of shot or lie I have, never really enters my mind."

That utter confidence within 40 yards of the pin has a simple genesis.

"When I was a kid, I just enjoyed practicing. I loved getting out there about 5 o'clock in the evening with 100 balls and hit 'em to five different spots around the green. Then, I'd chip 'em all into a basket. I probably hit 600 or 700 shots every night. Until it got dark, I was always out there."

Golf demands two separate, yet equal, kinds of patience: practice patience and competitive patience. The first is the patience to hit 700 chip shots every evening for years as the sun goes down. The other is the patience to endure the humiliating, exasperating torments of the devil's game in front of millions of eyes.

Craig Stadler always has had that first sort of patience. He finally is acquiring the latter.

Soon, Stadler may be a dull fellow, indeed.

And, tearless in the winner's circle, one of the greatest golfers in the world.