By the time they had thawed their chilled feet and finished breakfast, Curtis Strange, Craig Stadler, Tom Kite and Tom Watson should have been disgusted and ready to forget about this year's Masters.

After rising long before the sun, then teeing off at 7:30 a.m., all four had played miserably in completing their interrupted first rounds with scores, respectively, of 74, 75, 76 and 77--all far behind leader Jack Nicklaus at 69.

But they refused to yield. As a result, after shooting the four best scores of the afternoon's second round, they found themselves at evening in better position than they could have dreamed.

Stadler (69) and Strange (70) walked off the course knowing they were in contention, but blissfully unaware that they would end the day tied for the midway lead at even-par 144.

Kite and Watson, each of whom shot 69, knew they'd gamely brought themselves back into contention. But when they left the course they didn't suspect that, because of a general collapse behind them, they'd start the third round in third and fourth places.

Strange and Stadler make an odd, but appropriate, pair of leaders. Both have been top 10 stars for the past two years, but both have the same hole in their reputations. They've won much money, few tournaments, and both have shown an undeniable tendency to back off the lead after early-round success, especially in the majors.

Strange, who birdied the 13th, 14th and 15th holes in the second round to take the lead alone, then bogeyed the 16th and 18th to fall back into a tie, has finished a wealthy third and ninth in cash the last two seasons with $271,888 and $201,513. However, in six seasons, he has won only three tournaments. In 1981, he was the Masters' first-round leader (69), then, after a night to think about it, shot 79.

Stadler, who, after a solitary bogey at the third hole, birdied the sixth, seventh, ninth and 10th, has been eighth in money winning each of the past two years ($206,291 and $218,829). However, his season-opening victory this year at Tucson was only his fourth triumph in seven years on tour. Since then, after being a front-runner at Doral and Bay Hill, Stadler has backed off badly.

Both Strange and Stadler have high-quality games that, their peers assume, will lead to major titles--that is, if they can ever win the first one. As Ben Crenshaw, still without a major in his 10th season, knows, it gets harder to make it over the psychological hump the longer you wait.

Because of his streaky excellence, Stadler is more feared by the game's top echelon than Strange. "Craig has the game to win here this week," said Watson, who didn't make a bogey in his 69. "That is, if he can keep from getting too perturbed."

"I don't care to call it my 'temper.' Let's say that I don't think I will ever stop showing my emotions on the course," said Stadler, a recently reformed (sort of) world-class temper case. "Now, I have them under control."

For his part, Strange, who teed off this morning in "as many clothes as I could wear" in the 37-degree dawn, appears to give little credence to his chances. "I finished pretty strong," he said, self-deprecatingly, of his two late bogeys