When Ben Crenshaw got back to his rented house here last year, he opened the door and saw his best buddies--the singing group the Gatlin Brothers.

They were standing on their heads.

The whole corny golf world felt like standing on its head when Gentle Ben won his Masters. The most popular, sweet-tempered, friendly, star-crossed, emotional and honest golfer of his generation had erased a dozen years of disappointments in a day.

The good guy who couldn't win a big one had won the biggest one.

The trouble with happy endings is that life goes on.

Just when Crenshaw thought he'd gotten the monkey off his back, it was replaced by a gorilla.

When you see Crenshaw today, it's enough to make you wonder whether it is wise to set one tangible goal in life and then reach it.

Since that golden anniversary green coat was draped 'round his shoulders, he says golf has brought him "embarrassment, hurt, anger and frustration."

A month after his '84 Masters victory, Crenshaw said, "It was like the life was just drawn right out of me."

And, with the 49th Masters starting Thursday, the life isn't back yet.

Golfers have slumps, but what Crenshaw has been in for the last 11 months is a black hole. In nine starts this year, he's missed five cuts, been disqualified and won only $11,810. He ranks 160th on Tour in scoring (74.0), 150th in greens in regulation, 160th in driving distance and 134th in putting.

Crenshaw has worried so much that he's lost 10 pounds and, no matter how much he eats, can't gain an ounce on what was always a slim frame.

Even Crenshaw's legendary putting and boyish looks seem in jeopardy.

"The putts just aren't falling," he said. "When you struggle with the putter, it gets into the rest of your game. It's an extra strain on yourself to try to squeeze that ball in the hole."

Crenshaw "doesn't even have an excuse. My health has been perfect." Some would like to point out that, since his Masters victory, Crenshaw has gotten a divorce, but he insists, "It's been a long time since the divorce (in October). If anything, that was a relief."

As though Crenshaw needed any more bad luck, he forgot to strap his bag to his golf cart a few days ago. When the bag toppled off, the guy behind him drove over it and snapped the head off Crenshaw's favorite driver.

"Three clubs are personal to golfers: the sand wedge, putter and driver," Crenshaw says. "When one of those three gets damaged, you feel like you lost your arm."

Last April 15, Crenshaw shot 68 and wrote his name large in the big leather-bound golf history books he loves to read and collect so much. "This is a sweet, sweet win," he told a gallery that perhaps approved his victory more than any Masters triumph since Arnold Palmer. "I don't think there'll ever be a sweeter moment."

Just a few weeks later, at Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament, Crenshaw was still floating on his golf high, still seeing his name on the leader board every time out. "I can even remember the shot when it changed," he said today. "I tried to hit a wood out of a trap. Hit it sideways, made 8 on a par four and it was like somebody turned out the lights."

Crenshaw shot 79 that day, 79 the next. Golf has been a mystery and a misery ever since.

"The thing that kills me is that there's no in-between," he says. "Some days I'd just like to shoot par." But he can't. "I need help sometimes because I can get so negative sometimes it's unbelievable."

Hypnosis ? "That could be next . . .

"You know, golfers' results are like a mirrored images of themselves. You just feel like it's your whole life out there."

Perhaps Tom Watson put his finger as close to Crenshaw's problem as anyone when he said today, "In all sports, you see athletes who attain a certain goal and it stops them. There's always a goal better than that goal and you have to find it. If you don't think that way, you're in trouble."

Watson's goal? "To hit the perfect shot every time I swing at it."

So much for attainable goals.

Crenshaw, as sentimental as Watson is flinty, has never been fascinated by process and practice. He's always played by touch, been motivated by emotion and swallowed the whole magnolia-and-dogwood Masters mythology.

From the day as a teen-ager that Crenshaw first set foot on the Augusta National, he wanted to win the Masters more than anything else on earth. "This represents everything that's best in golf," he says.

Crenshaw came so close to winning major titles so often, and failed so agonizingly, that the frenzy and futility of his quest fed on itself. Five times he was runner-up -- twice here, including '83. Then came '84.

"So many moments told me it was my week . . . On the last day at the 12th, the hole could have been that big," said Crenshaw, holding his fingers exactly golf-ball size, "and I would have made it (for birdie). Sometimes you know you're going to produce a shot . . .

"After winning here last year, I asked myself many times, 'Can I go through this again? Do I want to go through this again?' "

Does Crenshaw almost regret his greatest victory?

"No, no, I won't go that far . . . You bet I'd do it over," he says with a grin, suddenly dismissing his black cloud and getting matters back in perspective. "I still can't tell people how much the tournament meant to me. Not a day goes by that I don't think about how wonderful it was.

"Just returning here is a positive for me . . . You know, all a streak player like me needs is a couple of holes to lose it or a couple of holes to get it back. See a few (putts) drop and a lot changes.

"I wouldn't trade that (day) for anything. If I suffered a while, that's okay," he says with a shrug. "One day, my game will just come back."

Each year here the new champion holds a dinner for all the past champs. On Tuesday, the Texas motif was yellow roses and hot, hot peppers.

Next year, the Masters dinner might not have Ben Crenshaw's name on it.

But he'll still be invited.