It was dark now at Augusta National and almost everyone was gone. But Curtis Strange wasn't. He lingered tonight, sipping a beer under an oak tree in front of the clubhouse. He knew one thing: He would never forget this day, this 49th Masters. What he didn't know was: How well would he live with it?

"I'm going home," he said. "I have a new boy. And there's the other boy, 2 1/2. He doesn't know what Daddy did today. He doesn't know if I shot 71 or 81. He'll kick on me, and that'll make me forget. But when I'm by myself, I'll always remember this."

Thursday, the slender, 30-year-old Strange, from Kingsmill, Va., had shot an opening-round 80. He stood 75th in the 77-man field. Tonight, under the tree, he laughed when he thought about how far behind he had been.

"Lee Trevino said to me this morning, 'You were in the grave.'

"And his caddie said, 'They were putting the dirt on top of you.' "

Then Curtis Strange made an unforgettable comeback, a round of 65 Friday, 68 Saturday. At the fourth hole today, he took the lead. By the time he reached Augusta's treacherous back nine, he had shot 15 under par for 45 holes to open up a four-stroke advantage.

Then, it happened, as Gary Player observed almost a quarter century ago: "Just when you think you have it licked, this golf course can get up and bite you."

It hurt Strange the most at the par-5 No. 15. He thought he might get a birdie. What he got was a bogey that put West Germany's Bernhard Langer into a lead he never relinquished. Even hours later, Strange could not understand what went wrong. He thought he had hit a perfect shot to the green. He was as surprised as anyone when it fell horribly short and into water.

"I just don't understand," he said. "It was an easy shot. It was only 200 yards to the front of the green. It was downwind. I hit a four-iron flush. If I had it to do over now, I'd go out and still use a four-iron. I saw the ball take off and I said to myself, 'You're not supposed to hit shots this good.' "

He had bogeyed the 10th and the 13th, and would also bogey the 18th, but he'll hear forever the splash on 15. "That was the tournament," he said. "It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it?

"I thought about it last night. Everything that would go with it, the stories, the jacket, the whole bit. But I didn't think about it today. I felt as comfortable as I have in a long time in the lead or near the lead."

He was thinking only of No. 15. "It was playing so easy today. Maybe the wind stopped blowing. Maybe I mis-clubbed.

"I tell you, I was happy as hell to be here Saturday. This is one of the strangest situations I've ever been in."

His head down, he dragged one of his spiked shoes back and forth across the grass as he spoke. "Coming back from the 80 is keeping me from banging my head against that tree," he said.

In reality, he was perfectly calm. Occasionally, he'd even smile. "I had a chance to make a score that's never been done before, playing Augusta National like nobody's ever played it. I was 13 under for three rounds, but it could easily have been 15 or 18 under. That would have been something."

It would have been one of golf's most remarkable comeback stories.

"Back to the hickory shaft days," he said.

Even when he was in a ditch on 13, he thought, "I can get it on the green easy." He swung and the ball took only brief flight, hitting and rolling back close to his feet. So it goes on the Augusta back nine on a Sunday.

"At one time," he said, "I had everybody thinking of second place. Gosh, it seems like it always happens here. I guess . . . (a sigh) I don't know."

Yet he did know. It hurt now, it would hurt more later.

"Time will tell. Over the long haul, losing the golf tournament will stick with me. It was my golf tournament to win and I lost it."

He would call his wife Sarah in a few minutes; she's home with their 11-day-old son, and their other small boy. "I called her last night -- I kinda had to talk. We didn't talk about golf. But she knew."

While he was talking he had let his empty beer can drop to the ground. But, no matter his thoughts, he picked it up as he turned to leave. He bent the can.

"It's going to be tough to take down the road," he said.

Two friends waited for him with a car. The road out was empty.