his 46th Masters, with its nasty new greens and its predictions of first-round rain and wind, shapes up as four players--Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Kite and Jerry Pate--against all the rest, beginning Thursday.

This quartet's chances, taken as a group, are probably twice as good as those of the other 72 players in the field combined. That's because no other golf event favors so heavily the truly eminent players of the day.

Masters history has a pattern. Almost two-thirds of the time, the winner is one of the three or four biggest names. The other men in green coats tend to be middle-of-the-pack surprises and, rather often, flukes.

For instance, in the past 24 Masters, 14 of the winners have been odds-on glory boys--Nicklaus (five times), Arnold Palmer (four), Gary Player (three) and Watson (two and counting). Also, throw in nonsurprises Billy Casper, Ray Floyd and Seve Ballesteros, who had already won majors before they won here.

So, let's study our predictable pick of the litter for this Masters, then try to anticipate the possible one-week mutants.

The profile of a Masters champion reads thus:

* He's probably won here before, or, if not, is a fast-rising star who's won a major title somewhere else.

* He's played well within the month. As Gene Sarazen said, "You don't come here to find your game. You're here because you've got one." And, if you intend to be champion, you better have a swing that's proved it's in working order. Any player who's won his previous tournament usually contends.

* Often, he does well in Wednesday's par-3 tournament, but doesn't actually win it.

A long, high-ball hitter with a draw is, ideally, favored, although two out of three ain't bad. Long is best. High is next. And left-to-right is nice.

* Players with a good history on ultrafast bent grass greens do well.

* Anybody who has a penchant for choking anywhere else will probably choke here.

So, after all that, who, if past form holds, is left?

Watson, two-time and defending champion, showed his readiness this afternoon by winning the pristine little par-3 tournament in a playoff from Pate and Peter (Watch This Guy) Jacobsen. Note, however, that since these spring shenanigans began in '34, no par-3 winner has won the tournament. Also, Watson won his last start at Harbor Town. He's primed. Watson's only problem may be that, if his driving is characteristically erratic, he may end up on the wrong portions of some greens and, thus, have three-putt miseries.

Nicklaus is next. Just 24 days ago, after he lost a playoff at Bay Hill, he looked like a dangerous bear who'd spent a winter working on rebuilding his putting stroke, rather than just hibernating. But he foolishly played four straight tournaments in Florida, burned himself out and comes here after missing two cuts.

Nevertheless, Nicklaus found a key to his swing here last week--"better low extension off the ball both back and through"--and says "after playing just terrible, I've been hitting it solidly for a week."

Nicklaus likes the new speedy greens, which rain (70 percent chance on Thursday) might mercifully slow. Now, the Augusta National is "similar to how (Bobby) Jones wanted it to play . . . the better, more complete player will have a better chance . . . long hitters will be helped because chipping will be so difficult if your (long-iron) shot barely misses the green."

Pate and Kite are, simply, the No. 1 and No. 2 money winners on tour in '82.

Pate won the TPC and finally may have the maturity and course management to match his textbook swing. He's finished fifth and sixth here the past two years, and has the fabulous iron game to hit what Nicklaus calls "the nervy (audacious) shots that take nerve" that Augusta National requires.

Last comes the betting favorite--Kite. Although he's not long off the tee and has never won a major, he's got this course wired, finishing fifth, third, fifth, sixth and fifth within the last six years.

So, finally, who are the odd fellows lying in the weeds here, the chaps with partial credentials?

Ballesteros, the '80 champion, has played solidly in recent weeks on tour and he has the power-plus-touch skills needed here. Andy Bean's a fast-green wizard, but he's never cracked the top 10 here. Young John Cook is a dark horse and struggler Danny Edwards won last week at Greensboro.

Ray Floyd's a perennial bloomer and David Graham has been in the top 10 four of the last five years. Hubert Green lives for a green jacket and always contends, but will he forget the winning putt he blew in '80?

Johnny Miller (sore ankle from a skiing fall) has a phobia about first rounds, and Bruce Lietzke has a phobia about last rounds. Hale Irwin, although consistent, has never gotten over the hump here, and Craig Stadler, No. 3 tour money winner this season, has never gotten over the lump--in his throat as soon as he reaches the lead here.

Greg Norman finished fourth in '81 on his first visit and eats the par 5s like the great white shark he is.

As a final word of glorious confusion, Kite said this afternoon, "All the knowledge I've picked up here over the years is for naught. Nobody even knows what score might win this year."

In fact, only one contending player can remember those ancient days of superslick surfaces. That fellow sat around Tuesday night munching dinner with fellows named Sarazen, Nelson and Picard, talking about the nightmare tales of the late '30s and '40s and picking brains for tips.

"Oh, yes," said Nicklaus with a bearish grin, "I know what to expect."