The flowers haven't arrived at the Masters yet this spring. Fortunately, the golf course that they adorn--the Augusta National--is still here, lush and essentially unchanged.

What the Masters, which starts Thursday, proves each year is that the world can recognize and respect a good idea.

When Bobby Jones conceived this course, he created a piece of work so well suited to its goals, so subtle in its ability to elicit human drama, that each spring we are forced to nod--a golfer's obeisance--to his knowledge of his sport and of his fellow men.

Despite its emerald frills and its stuffy-comic aristocratic pretensions, the Masters remains special for one reason: it's played on the best tournament golf course on earth.

What makes our memories of Augusta so sharp, and also whets our appetites, is our confidence that the course will put poor mortals into situations where they and their golf games will crack open before us like patients bursting into tears of self-revelation on a psychiatrist's couch. The back nine here is the most sylvan wrack in sports.

This week much will be said about the absence of Augusta's torrents of azalea, its cascades of dogwood and rosebud. The only flowers in bloom in the Amen Corner are the blazing yellow critters back behind the remote 13th tee--the same suspect blossoms that some cynics think are plastic.

Spring in the Georgia pines is marvelous, but it's just a stage prop for the four-act plays that Jones envisioned for his green cathedral. We need only to think back over the past five years to understand the quality of golf promise that gives the Masters more panache than any other event in its sport.

In 1978, Gary Player, playing with the bravery born of starting the day seven strokes behind, shot a 64. More memorable was Hubert Green standing over a three-foot putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff. He missed. An hour later, he was back on the green at sundown, stroking the putt over and over; by returning to the scene of the crime, Green probably saved himself a lifetime of sleepless nights. Otherwise, how many times would he have asked himself, "Did I misread it, mis-hit it, or both."

In '79, Ed Sneed, after five hours of torment, came face to face with one five-foot putt for a green jacket. He missed, too, leaning forward in a tableau of disbelief as he finished bogey-bogey-bogey for a final 76. To no one's surprise, Sneed disappeared without a ripple in a three-way playoff with Tom Watson and winner Fuzzy Zoeller.

In '80, Seve Ballesteros proved that no lead ever would be safe on this back nine. On the 10th tee, Ballesteros had a 10-shot lead. By the 14th hole, that lead was two shots. Finally, Ballesteros, out of self-disgust ("You are soooo dumb") began to attack once more--the only solution Jones allowed. He won by four shots.

In '81, Tom Watson scrambled for gutty Watson pars all day and edged Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller by two shots. Finally, in '82, winner Craig Stadler had a six-shot lead with nine to play, yet ended up in a playoff with Don Pohl after a back-nine 40 that ended with a missed six-footer for victory on the 18th. Like Sneed, and many before him, Stadler moaned, "I didn't hit a bad shot the whole back nine." That's what Jones had in mind. The Masters is won with great shots, nothing less; merely adequate shots are rejected like sneakers at a formal dinner.

The closing holes here cannot be "played for par" because most of them do not really have any "par." The 10th and 11th holes are called par 4s, but are more like "easy" par 5s; there's no safe or sensible way to play either for 4. The 13th and 15th are the reverse--easy par 5s that are really just brutal par 4s. All four holes have the same bottom line: the courageous player makes 4 while the cautious soul gets 5, or 6. On the par-3 12th and 16th holes, a pure swing leaves a birdie putt, while a mediocre pass paves the way to bogey.

As a final twist, the 14th, 17th and 18th holes--none of which has much charm or challenge from tee to green--are agonizingly difficult to putt. Other holes get you with length, or water, or wind, or club selection. These give you a rudimentary trip to the green, then choke you when you relax.

Every year, these holes reveal their special terrors on Sunday when pin placements are the way Jones wanted them and nerves are the way players don't want them. Unlike some arbitrarily difficult modern courses which seem designed to intimidate and overpower all the players (producing a survivor, not a winner), the Masters has a much richer symbiosis with its suitors. As the doughty Player and the laser-eyed Watson knew, and as Ballesteros and Zoeller and Stadler discovered when they played full bore, rather than half-throttle, Augusta National can make a golfer look and feel superhuman.

Almost every spring, there is true glory here for the victor. For the losers, however, there's a kind of humiliation that almost amounts to a stern moral lecture from Jones on how a man should conduct himself when passing through the toughest tests of life or sport.