"They've got these new greens so fast that you'll have to use bubble gum under your ball mark so it won't slide off the green. By Sunday, when the heat gets on, that putter is going to feel like a snake in your hands." --Hale Irwin, two-time U.S. Open champion

The sanctified greens at Augusta National can rest easy these last chilly nights before the Masters starts Thursday. Once again, as of old, their honor is safe, their reputation secure.

After a decade of fretting hereabouts, the Masters is the Masters again.

Finally, today, the sound that fanciers of the Augusta National like best was heard again in the Georgia air--the pathetic, hangdog complaining of the chronically spoiled professional golfer.

* Said defending champ Tom Watson: "The greens are so fast they've changed the whole nature of the golf course. Five-foot putts are going to be as tough as 35-footers usually are. At times, I putted like I would for a three-footer and watched the ball roll 40 feet . . . Treacherous doesn't describe it. Those greens are just about impossible now. They're right at the limit."

* "Those are now the fastest greens in the world, even faster than Royal Melbourne (in Australia)," said Greg Norman. "I had a six-foot putt roll 45 feet. I had an iron shot spin backwards 100 feet and 15 yards off the green. I'd rather be 40 feet below the hole than four feet above it."

* "Now, they can finally put on the test of golf they want again," said Hubert Green. "But, if they're not careful, they could make it a circus."

* "How do you stop a four-foot downhill putt?" asked Hale Irwin rhetorically, slightly punchy from 27 practice holes on a blustery day. "Well, if you grip the putter right down on the shaft and yell, 'Bite,' and suck your breath back in real hard, it may stop. I may bring my six-shooter and start firing at the ball if it keeps rolling and yell, 'Stop in the name of the law.' "

* "The fastest ever," said Sam Snead, 70, the final authority.

For generations, the mounds and declivities of the putting surfaces here were the measure by which golfing treachery was measured. Why, this was the joint where Don January, leading the field on a Saturday, hit an apparently routine putt on the 13th green, then watched the ball roll into the water.

This was the place where Snead said the greens were so hard you could actually "hear the ball roll," where Ben Hogan could four-putt and where the oldest members said you had more chance of stopping a ball on a marble staircase than you did of putting the brakes on a downhill putt at the Masters.

Every subtlety of Bobby Jones' masterwork in dogwood, azalea and firethorn was built on the premise of those viciously nerve-splitting greens. How else could you have a course with unmissable fairways, no rough and only 43 traps?

Every penalty for inaccuracy, bad planning or lost nerve was exacted on those greens.

The punishment fit the crime: you might hit a piece of the green, but you'd face a long, tormenting, undulating lag putt. The first one might not get you, but, over the four days, you'd become a wreck. The more little mistakes you made, the more the three-putts would mount. Only the bold, who aimed at the sticks and hit them, survived.

Then, sickeningly, the Augusta National greens--a mixture of rye with a Bermuda base--began to lose their punch. They just slowed down to the pace of a quick public course. If you cut 'em low enough to keep their terrifying speed, they'd just die.

Purists, like Jack Nicklaus, mourned their passing; out of the sides of mouths, the word was passed in the locker room that the Augusta National just wasn't a great course any more.

Almost every year, the field average got lower and respect for the Masters faded. It didn't matter how wildly you hit the ball, as winner Seve Ballesteros did in 1980; you could always throw the ball up somewhere on the green and two-putt. Or, perhaps make an undeserved birdie.

Even Augusta's hallowed need for local knowledge got a body blow when blithe Fuzzy Zoeller won in 1979, the first time he ever played the layout. Lee Trevino got in the lowest blow, saying, "If they put up a sign that said 'Hartford Open,' everybody'd shoot 265." Golf Digest even dropped Augusta National out of the nation's top 10 courses.

So, after the 1980 Masters, the Augusta National, sorrowfully, did what it had to do to its greens.

It gassed 'em. Killed 'em blade and root. And, on a bit of a gamble, planted new bent grass.

Last year, the players' reviews were surly and mixed, but basically respectful, since lord knows what the Masters fathers would do when the bent was "in" and could be double-cut to whisker height.

Now, the final verdict has arrived.

"It'll take a lot more effort and a lot more guts to win this year," said Watson. "You might have a putt with a 15-foot break."

"How'd you like the greens?" asked Irwin cryptically of Lanny Wadkins.

"What greens?" retorted Wadkins. "I didn't see any greens out there."

Sure, Lanny, just shaved dirt. Hard as a bowling alley. But slicker.

That's what Bobby Jones wanted to hear when he built this track--a hollow braggadocio hiding a world of trepidation. That's the way he wanted it. That's the way it should be. And, finally, after at least a dozen-year hiatus, that's the way it is again.