Gaining even a partial victory over age is harder than defeating other men. That's why this Masters has a resonance beyond golf.

These days, in their different ways, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd have shown us, through their golf, how gently a man can age, finding a posture and a tone appropriate to each stage of his life.

On Wednesday, in the par-3 tournament, Snead--playing in his 44th and final Masters--drew a large gallery. At 71, he is still able to delight. Not with nostalgic jokes or corny dated clothes, but with his marvelous swing, with his golf. At the next to last hole, Snead lofted his ball over the water to a tiny green, then sank his putt for a birdie. The perfect tempo, the lashing hands at the moment of impact, were a legitimate, dignified farewell. He shot 79 in the first round, and withdrew today.

This week, Palmer, 53, Nicklaus, 43, and Tom Watson, 33--none knowing what the other had said--all made nearly identical comments. "I play with Sam every chance I can so that I can imitate his tempo. I always play better after I play with him," said all three, their pressroom quotes almost eerie Xerox copies of each other. "Sam Snead still has the best swing in golf."

In golf, unlike any other sport in America, it's possible to stay on top for 25 years, then continue as a dignified competitor for another decade and, finally, remain a presentable facsimile of yourself right up to the gates of old age.

Taken over an entire lifetime, golf is, by a clear margin, the most lifelike of our sports. Normally, the kernel of meaning hidden inside our games is somewhat bitter. The achievements of athletes are tinged with a quasi-tragic element. We find our heroes doubly piquant because their time in the spotlight is so short. The life span of an NFL running back is four seasons.

In golf, all the ages of man are given an almost oriental respect.

Particularly at the Masters.

Here, past champions have a lifetime pass into the small field. If Doug Ford insists on coming out and shooting 85, then it's permitted. No one scoffs at the Bob Goalbys, Art Walls and Billy Caspers who make the cut one year in five. They have their place, and even their followers. Gene Sarazen is 81 and still tees it up here every year for a few holes; the young watch with genuine interest, since the lineaments of that double-eagle swing are still faintly discernible in the old man's action.

The Masters, however, is not a testimony to old codgers, but, rather, of the capacity of men to grow in experience and knowledge every year.

"This is the most subtle course we play," said Watson. "You can learn something in every round. I keep learning about the wind--where it turns corners, how it can double back on itself when it goes down in a hollow and then comes back up. A (little) breeze is the toughest because you have to learn how it shifts and changes. At the fourth hole (205 yards), you can hit what you think is a perfect shot and be 50 yards short."

This week has been especially good for watching the ways that golf allows its champions to arrive at the pinnacle a bit later than in other sports, then stay on top much longer.

When we see Raymond Floyd, 40 years old and at the very peak of his career, leading the field after a first-round 67, we sense that life is not such a desperately urgent affair. Tempo Raymondo never got serious about anything until he was past 30. Now it seems he was cheated of little. He's so content, so responsible, that we almost suspect that a man must grow sated on wild oats before he can be so genially adult.

"I think that, in golf, your physical and mental capabilities aren't really compatible until you're 35 to 45. Those, to me, are your peak years. You feel so much better adjusted to everything," said Floyd today, wasting time in the Masters clubhouse as a hard, steady rain completely flooded the course.

"When you're young, you're blessed with strength and raw ability, but, unfortunately, you don't have brain one to go with it. I can't hit it 300 yards in the air anymore, but I've learned a lot of the little things. In the last few years, everything in my game has started complementing everything else.

"Every other player I've talked to has mentioned the same thing. Look at the careers of (Ben) Hogan and Snead and so many others. Jack Nicklaus is the only one I've ever known who came out at 21 and had the maturity (to play his best immediately). They say Bobby Jones was like that, too . . .

"My wife was the one who turned the light on," said Floyd, who was No. 2 on the money list in 1981 and '82 and is the Vardon Trophy leader this year. "When we got married (Floyd was 31), she said, 'If you aren't going to be serious about what you're doing, maybe you should do something else.' You might say she said it a little stronger than that. I never had any realism like that put to me . . . You have to be honest with yourself. It was kinda frightening."

At 32, Floyd--almost overnight--accepted his role as husband, father and earnest golfer and put his extended childhood behind him. "At some point," he said, "you say to yourself, 'I want to be the best' . . . But when you honestly make that commitment, you have to realize all the dedication and time that it takes."

Interestingly, Nicklaus also had a sort of Road to Damascus revelation when he was 31. Then, he was still Fat Jack. His doctor had always told him that "there'll be some day in your life when you know it's time to lose weight and you will." That day came for Nicklaus when he'd played 36 holes of golf for three days in a row. "I was tired from golf for the first time in my life," he recalled this week.

That night, Nicklaus told his wife that day had come. He called his tailor the next morning and told him, "I'll need a new wardrobe in three weeks." In that time, he lost 20 to 25 pounds and has never put it back on.

Now, Nicklaus takes long brisk walks (jogging kills his back), plays tennis and even skis.

"Someday, Craig Stadler will go through what I went through," said Nicklaus, "and he'll lose that weight. He'll know when the time is right."

Worse than stiff muscles and excess midriff and yippy nerves is a gradual loss of desire, even in the greatest competitors. "I got tired," says Palmer, bluntly. "After 15, 17 years of pushing, day after day, year after year, I really didn't care . . . The whole thing just deteriorates. I needed to stop, just walk away . . . Jack (Nicklaus) is in that period now . . . Sooner or later, you hope you can relight the candle . . . Two, three, four years ago, that desire, that fire came back. More than ever."

In golf, little of significance is won after a man's 45th birthday; Julius Boros won the U.S. Open at 43 and Gary Player won the Masters at 43. Despite this, there's a wonderfully dignified middle ground that a few fortunate players can reach.

The great player, far past his prime, can still have his day, or week. At 51, Snead finished third in the Masters; at 60, he shot an opening-round 69. Hogan, at 54, brought Augusta National to its feet with a splendid 66 that, for many, is one of the finest moments in the history of the game.

The legends of those days when time freezes are rich. In fact, old hands here remember that when Hogan shot his 66, 17 years ago, he held court for reporters in the clubhouse. Near Hogan, tying his shoes ever so slowly so he could hear The Wee Ice Mon's ruminations, was a chap who was then the No. 2 money winner in golf. That fellow, filing away memories, was--according to the tale--Arnold Palmer.

This Thursday, Palmer began the Masters with a 68. It was his best round since 1974, his second-best score since 1965 and his best opening round since 1961. Some are now dreaming about a Palmer victory here, if the rains ever end. Those with a feeling for this paradoxical game--this sport which both humbles the young and yet leaves the old their pride--may feel differently. They think that Palmer has already won his Masters.