"People lose perspective about the Masters . . . I've played courses I thought were better tests of golf . . . Riviera, Merion, Colonial, Pebble Beach. Those courses test every type of shot and penalize none . . . I rebel against the Masters-mania that says I've died and gone to heaven when I come to Augusta. But, here, saying that is a sacrilege." --Jack Renner, PGA tour's 11th-leading money winner in 1981

When Thursday's pairings for the Masters were posted, golf's cynical cognoscenti chuckled. The very last man off the first tee would be sharp-tongued Jack Renner, the skinny 25-year-old pro who had the nerve to say the Masters wasn't wearing any clothes.

All this spring, when asked, Renner has been blunt in his reservations about the greatness of Augusta, saying that it unfairly penalized the games of many excellent players--for instance, himself.

Renner simply voiced the question on many golf minds for the last several years: How good is the Masters, really?

Again this week, Renner said what others mumble--that Augusta National is a restrictive club in more than one sense. The Masters does a good job of perpetuating the glory of a handful of players whose style is suited to the course, and who, after learning the course's strategic secrets, seem to be permanent fixtures at the top. Equally fine players--elsewhere--seldom have a chance here.

If Renner's disadvantageous tee time--when he would have to putt through the spike marks of the whole field and finish at dusk--was a starchy reprimand, a social boxing of the lad's ears, it backfired amusingly.

"If they tried to get me, then I got 'em back," Renner said. "Because I started last (on Thursday), I got to play 11 holes in good weather (on Friday morning after rain interrupted play) and shot 72." Then, Renner judiciously added that "they"--the Augusta fathers--probably weren't trying to get him.

Renner's critique of this course, however, stands.

"I'm lost here in terms of strategy. I'm really truthfully lost. My style is to hit it in the middle of the greens, and this course punishes that.

"I have no pretense of winning the tournament, if you were wondering. I'm almost at the end. I'm just trying to hang on. I may just say, 'The hell with it.' I just don't consider this a good course for me. I'm arrogant. I feel like I'm a hell of a player, but this is too much for me. I'll just defer to the 'stars' this week." And Renner cryptically emphasized the word "stars," as though Augusta stars and golf stars might not always be the same.

"Give me a high, long hook--give me Fuzzy's game--and let me go. Just watch me," said Renner, picking Fuzzy Zoeller as a perfect example of a past Masters champion whose overall career record is very similar to Renner's, perhaps not as good, but who has an enormous advantage here every spring.

The paradox in evaluating the Masters is always the same. How do you strike a fair balance between relishing the event's gorgeously indulgent pageantry, its ambivalent antebellum ambiance and its superb drama, and weighing it strictly on its merits as a golf tournament?

The answer is that you probably cannot and should not.

As a sort of stately carnival, a circus for the upper crust, the Masters has a unique place in sports. As has been said ad nauseam, Augusta National in April is, as even Renner gladly offers, "The most beautiful golf course I've ever seen."

People long for places that seem out of this world--cathedrals, elaborate gardens, the marble monuments of state. To visit these venues at times that have, perhaps arbitrarily, been designated as special and symbolic, gives a sense of being unaccountably special yourself. That expression is on the faces of thousands here. The spring air is no sweeter here, nor the flowers more rich in color than elsewhere. But, these faces say, this is the one most special, most privileged place in America to be on this particular day.

All this is probably far more than half illusion. But, with careful tending, it is a delicious fabrication that Augusta National has maintained and heightened for generations.

Thanks to the splendor of national television coverage (you can't point a camera in the wrong direction here), the Masters as media institution is unshakable.

So, why be curmudgeon enough to try?

This is the tribal ground where Tom Watson, after playing nine holes on Friday starting at 7:30 a.m., hied to the off-limits past champions' dining room and spent the next two hours in silence, "eating breakfast and listening to Sam Snead tell stories."

One floor below, Tom Kite and his father munched eggs together, while the senior Kite gave his son a swing tip. The son said thanks, went to the tee, started his round birdie-birdie and swung into contention.

If the Masters, as a moving mural of scenes and stories, is undeniable, Augusta National as a great golf course is a harder question.

Some golf courses aspire to be fair and evenhanded tests of golf. Bobby Jones, to his mind, aimed higher by building a course that would reward four qualities more than others: pure power, tactical intelligence, putting touch and the will not to quit.

The Masters has always been built for power hitters. "Paradise for long hitters," said Jim Simons. Medium-hitter Kite added, "It's also a position course. The farther you hit it, the better, as long as you hit it straight. And you can't ask for more than that."

But, in the last 15 years, the other virtues, besides power, that Jones wanted to test have not always been as necessary as in the past. Without recapitulating common golfing knowledge, the heart of Augusta always has been the difficulty of its greens.

"The greens are the only thing that makes Augusta tough," Stadler appraised. Zoeller added, "Every course has its features. Augusta has its greens."

Those greens have always tested tactics as well as touch. A poorly placed drive led to a poorly positioned approach, which led to three putts.

This year, the greens are back to the speed Jones intended and, once again, the Masters is the sort of examination he intended.

"Those greens are somewhere between formica table tops and parquet floors," said Ray Floyd. "Now, they can be as fast as they want 'em to be again."

"The greens aren't too fast," emphasized Jack Nicklaus. "But they're too fast for the pin positions they have. Over the years, as the greens have slowed down, they've lengthened the course, though the score card hasn't shown it, and they've gone to tougher and tougher pin positions.

"We're now playing on a course that's longer than it needs to be, now that the greens are back (to proper speed). We're hitting three-irons into the 18th, not seven-irons. Of course, some of these guys are good enough to get away with that some of the time . . . When those guys are that good, they take all us old guys right with 'em and we have to try to do it, too.

"What the pin committee has to understand," Niccklaus went on, "is that there are no backstops out there and they've removed all the windmills . . . They have to be very careful and get the course back to playing the way it did 20 years ago."

In a sense, both sides are correct here. Renner has an entirely valid point that conservative, consistent players--"commercial" is the players' term--do not have an equal opportunity here. "This is a gambler's golf course," Tom Weiskopf declared.

And, for that matter, hookers always will have an edge on faders. And musclers such as Seve Ballesteros always will be able to reach the two par-5s on the back nine in two, while half the field or more hasn't a chance.

The Augusta National is correct when it insists that while this is not equal, that does not mean it is unfair. This is, on purpose, an undemocratic, elitist golf course. Not all golfing virtues are treated equally. Jones liked the combination of muscle, brains, adventurousness and emotional resiliency. So, he built a course that would draw out those qualities and reward them.

"It takes nerve to decide to hit the shots that need to be hit to win here, and then it takes nerves to hit those nervy shots," Nicklaus said this week.

That is not a complete test of golf, any more than the small invitational field here is a complete cast of the world's best golfers.

Nevertheless, it is an eminently high standard. Now that those formica-table greens have returned, the Masters should produce high athletic drama for years.