"I've never heard so much giggling at the Masters." --Jack Nicklaus By Thomas Boswell Washington Post Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 9--For Mark Hayes at sundown today, it was going to be one of the wonderful moments of a golfing lifetime, well worth those 26 years of practice since the day his dad, a phys-ed teacher, had put a club in his hand at the age of 6.

The stolid journeyman had what appeared to be a simple six-foot birdie putt on the 18th green at Augusta National to tie Craig Stadler (75-69) and Curtis Strange (74-70) for the lead of this 46th Masters at par 144 after two rounds.

Hayes' putt barely crept past the edge of the hole, millimeter by agonizing millimeter, then, nightmarishly, trickled 35 feet to the front of the green.

The titters began in the crowd. They'd seen this before.

Now Hayes faced a long uphill par-putt to tie Tom Kite (76-69) for third place at one over par. Or, at worst, he could two-putt for bogey to tie four illustrious Masters champions for fourth place at two over par: Jack Nicklaus (69-77), Tom Watson (77-69), Seve Ballesteros (73-73) and Ray Floyd (74-72).

This time, Hayes' tentative putt stopped six feet below the hole. As Hayes walked forward, hand dug deep in his pocket to get his ballmark, he suddenly froze. His ball was still alive, almost imperceptibly rolling back.

Tormentingly, the ball rolled to almost exactly the same spot at the bottom of the green, still 35 feet from the hole. The crowd was in an ecstasy of suppressed amusement. Fresh in memory was Hale Irwin (80-78), who had gone up the hill and back to his own feet twice before finishing his four-putt misery.

"The hardest thing to take was the way the crowd snickered and laughed," said Hayes, whose sober, diligent, hat-pulled-low-over-the-eyes demeanor made him a perfect tragicomic foil for the vicious humors of the golf fates. "I never had such a helpless feeling. I could see myself staying there all day."

Finally, on his third putt, Hayes' ball found a sane resting place, four feet below the hole. Hayes sneaked up on the agate, keeping his footsteps soft so as not to dislodge the white menace from the solitary spike mark that was holding it in place. Hayes even kept his shadow from crossing the ball--who knows what might energize it again--as he snatched the ball up and marked.

Finally, after this eternity of humiliation, Hayes sank his four-foot fourth putt for double bogey to tie six other players for eighth place at three over par: Andy Bean, Tom Weiskopf, Jerry Pate, Gary Player, Jack Renner and Peter Oosterhuis.

This was the day when the Augusta National had its revenge for more than a decade of disrespect and general bad-mouthing about how slow greens had defiled this golfing shrine. On Thursday, foul weather could take partial credit for astronomical scores. But on this breezy, spring-like day, all the credit went to the National and its once-again legendary lightning greens.

"This course puts you in an awful position to make an ass out of yourself," said Nicklaus. "About every time you draw it back."

This was the day of days to feel asinine.

Gil Morgan's lag putt on the 11th green ended up in the water.

Fuzzy Zoeller, the first-day leader at 72 when play was discontinued because of rain, took a 9 on the second hole today. In fact, after four swings and one penalty shot, Zoeller still hadn't reached his partners' initial tee shots. "And I hit a three-wood off the tee tryin' to be smart," said Zoeller (72-76).

Ballesteros hit a chip at the 14th that rolled back to his feet. ("You can't try to make a putt. You have to be defensive and that's not my game.")

Watson finished his first round thus: triple bogey, bogey, bogey for 77. ("I'm still trying to forget it.")

Nicklaus had a two-foot putt at the 16th which, he said with a straight face, "would have been in the water if I'd missed it. I don't think there's any doubt about that."

Floyd said of the 18th green pin placement, "That's not . . . golf."

Kite staggered off the course after making eight birdies in his afternoon round and still ending up over par, and said, "I feel like I just rode the bull at Gilley's."

Frank Conner recorded the highest two rounds in Masters history, 89-82-171. And had the guts to sign his score, rather than withdraw as others did.

The eventual field stroke average for the first round, completed this morning, was 77.5, including 17 scores of 80 or above, three of them by recent U.S. Open winners Andy North (86), Johnny Miller (81-80) and Irwin (80).

Sam Snead shot 82, then withdrew. His nephew, J.C., signed an incorrect scorecard and was disqualified.

The leaders' midpoint score (144) equaled the highest ever. And the cut score (154) was the highest on record.

The man who had to kick himself hardest was Nicklaus.

At 7:30 a.m., he was one shot behind Watson and Stadler at even par. By the time Nicklaus finished knocking down pins in the dew, his first-round 69 led the pack by three shots. Watson was eight behind. At day's end, they were tied.

In his abysmal afternoon 77, Nicklaus, sadly, looked a bit like Arnold Palmer a decade ago as he three-putted five greens, missing second putts of four to eight feet. He also missed four makable birdie putts inside 15 feet. The Bear of olden days might have run away and hidden on such a first-rate tee-to-green day. Now he's on the practice putting green at dusk.

The proper testament to this day, and this Masters so far, was that the leaders came off the course with no more confidence than those who had just been decimated.

Strange was asked what he thought about his position after two rounds.

"I don't know what position I'm in," said Strange, who bogeyed two of the last three holes.

"You're first," he was told.

"Oh," said Strange.

Then, upon reflection, he added, "That just shows how quick you can go from the worst player in the world to leading the Masters . . . after I finished nine holes yesterday (in three over), I wasn't even thinking about making the cut . . . Never once out there today did I feel confident over a putt."

Stadler, so often an early-round leader and so often a late-round collapse, wasn't aware he was leading, either, since four players (Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Hayes and Strange) were all still under par when he left the course.

"I feel a hell of a lot better than I did this morning," said Stadler, who had 40 on the back as a dew-sweeper, then had a one-bogey 69 in the afternoon. "I just had breakfast and tried to wake up," Stadler summarized his strategy.

Perhaps Floyd best summed up the debilitating feeling that seemed to drain every leader on this sunny, breezy day.

"It's like they say," philosophized Floyd, " 'You can linger, but you can't last.' "