Until Saturday night, the Pan American Games had been largely a pain in the neck for the Masters family of Columbia, Md. Suddenly, however, a gold medal brightened things considerably.

Brian Masters, losing only one game in five matches, won the men's singles championship in table tennis. As a result, his father, Dennis, the U.S. manager, didn't even care that a disappearing bus driver would strand his team at the Gimnasio Ciudad Universitaria for a third straight night.

Brian, 19, earned his biggest career victory by outlasting Ricardo Tetsuo of Brazil, 21-16, 21-15, 17-21, 24-22, in a match that had two distinct turning points.

With Tetsuo ahead, 10-5, in the first game, Masters took five straight points off the Brazilian's serve to pull even.

"I found out I was quicker than he was backhand to backhand and I could beat him that way most of the time," Masters said. "From then on, I tried to get into that situation whenever I could."

In the third game, with Masters in front, 13-10, and seemingly headed for a quick victory, Tetsuo turned things around with six straight points and was able to win the game.

"I started getting a little bit frustrated because the dead-ball shot that works against most people didn't give him much trouble," Masters said. "From then on, it was a real battle."

Masters, a left-hander, uses a paddle with two distinct surfaces, one side deader than the other, and as he switches around, it confuses most opponents.

Masters came here with less than bright chances after injuring his back at the training camp in Colorado Springs, and the prospect of three weeks in the Pan American village, uncompleted when the team moved in Aug. 11, was not a pleasant one.

"I couldn't play for a week and a half before I came here," Masters said. "But they had a chiropractor here and he fixed up my back within two days. Then I hurt my neck and for three days I couldn't move it. But the chiropractor fixed that up, too.

"I think the best thing that happened was when we met a Venezuelan family that owns a restaurant near the village. We ate there most of the time, instead of at the village, and they took us out for rides. It really helped to relieve the monotony."

Monotony was not Dennis Masters' problem. He was kept busy trying to arrange transportation.

"Staying at the village was bad enough," he said. "I'd see the bathroom with a few inches of water on the floor and wonder whether I ought to buy some boots. The kids weren't bothered, though. They never complained.

"Sometimes, we'd sit around an hour or more waiting for a bus and frequently when we came out of the practice site the bus would be gone. The table tennis facilities were excellent, though, and I guess that was the big thing."

In the team matches, the U.S. was seeded first in its group, with the Dominican Republic second. For some reason, the U.S. drew a first-round bye and then, in its first match, faced the Dominicans, who had already played and were much sharper, winning, 5-3.

The next day the U.S., showing its disappointment, lost to Jamaica, forfeiting any chance at a medal.

When highly regarded Sean O'Neill of Vienna, Va., was beaten by Canada's Horatio Pintea in an early round Saturday, it appeared the U.S. was headed for more adversity. Thanks to Brian Masters, however, there was a happy ending.