Time was Curtis Strange could make the hair on the back of your neck stand up with irritation just watching him.

On a golf course, little suited him, not much was fun, noisy gnats got on his nerves. A grumpy grinder, weaned on the game and obsessed by it, Strange was too high strung, afraid of defeat and leery of others.

"People thought I was gruff and a grump," says Strange now. "Hey, I've seen pictures of myself. Man, I always looked so serious."

When Arnold Palmer got fed up three years ago and wrote a protest letter to the Tour about the "discourteous and ungentlemanly behavior and thoughtlessness (of young pros) . . . which is despicable to me," somebody had to take the fall.

The "abusive language and displays of temperament" that made Sir Arnold hot came home to roost on Strange. He was not the only sourpuss with a short fuse who'd mouth off at a woman scorekeeper or a noisy cameraman. But he got busted on the Bay Hill rap. He made the public apology to Palmer and got the bad rep.

So, who's this fellow impersonating Curtis Strange these days ?

Who's this guy on the Kemper Open leaderboard (70-72 -- 142, ninth place) who has a ready smile and a nice way with a self-deprecating story? Who's this handsome 30-year-old at the top of the 1985 money list ($401,993) who's becoming a growing crowd favorite?

Above all, who's this guy who loses a four-shot Masters lead on the back nine and handles the whole miserable deal with such candor, dignity and good humor that he gets sympathy from around the world?

Could it be Curtis' identical twin brother Alan?

Nope, it's Curtis.

Three years ago, Strange wasn't a bad guy, just a troubled one. He knew he was strung too tight. And he knew why.

"All my energy, since I was a boy, had been focused on golf," said Strange, whose father was a pro, owner of a Virginia Beach club and a Virginia State champion. By age 8, Strange was playing every day. After his father died when Strange was 14, he just redoubled his resolve to be great, becoming two-time NCAA champ on a Palmer scholarship at Wake Forest and hitting the pro tour as Mr. Hot Shot incarnate.

Being good, but not the best, stuck in Strange's craw. Up the money list he clawed: 88th, 21st, third in 1980. But the price was great. "Starting young, wanting it so much . . . you're hardened by that. I know I was."

Near the top, he stalled, semi-burned out and so nervous that insomnia left him weak on the course. His hair was turning pepper-salt gray and friends worried.

"I tried to change," he says. "I tried so hard to be laid back that it probably hurt my game for a couple of years."

This spring, with two quick victories, he finally seemed to have hit the happy medium. At Augusta, after an opening 80, he staged what might have gone down as the greatest comeback in modern major championship golf, going 15 under par over 45 holes to take that big lead.

Then he shot 39 coming home and Bernhard Langer won.

"I didn't know what to expect when he came home," said Strange's wife Sarah, who'd just had their second child.

The first hint -- to others and to him -- was his post-loss interview.

"That week was the first time I'd ever had fun with the press. They had finally gotten to know me a little. I've gotten that 'Tour clone' stuff. But you can't complain about being stereotyped if you don't try to correct it. I said, 'Let's don't mess this up.' "

To his surprise, talk was therapy.

Jack Nicklaus took him aside and said, "This'll ruin you or make you a better player." Strange got the message: how he reacted to defeat was more important than the fact that he'd lost.

On his first day home, he took his family boating, then headed to his Kingsmill club in Williamsburg to show his friends he wasn't under the bed.

Then the real surprises started.

"If you could see the notes and telegrams I've gotten. People are awfully sensitive, awfully nice. It's nice to see, nice to be a part of," says Strange. "It's been incredible.

"In six weeks, not one person has been negative and said, 'Ya screwed up.' Actually, they feel like they're bringing up a sore subject, almost like a death in the family . . . I gave a little speech in Bristol (Va.) and afterward I asked for questions. No hands from 250 people. I said, 'How many of you saw the last round of the Masters?' Every hand goes up. I said, 'And you don't have any questions'

"If I felt as bad as some people have felt for me, I'd still be in seclusion at home . . . The only reason I'm not, is that I don't want to ruin a whole year by getting in a depressive state and lose the money title, too.

"But I'm not going to say I'm not bothered by it (the Masters). I still think about it every day. I waited three or four days before I could watch the replay . . . One night I had one too many beers -- that's what it took -- and watched it.

"I came away feeling better than I thought I would. I hit too many good shots, made too many good putts, to feel real bad. Everybody talks about my second shot at the 13th. Hell, I never had any doubt about going for the (par-5) green (in two); still don't. I hadn't missed a shot in 2 1/2 days.

"If I'd laid up and lost, I'd really have killed myself. I had 208 yards with a four-wood. Basic golf shot. I never had a decision to make. I just stepped up and said, 'Where are we gonna aim this gypsy?'

"There was one person standing in those golf shoes. That was me. If I can live with it, everybody else ought to be able to."

Since the Masters, Strange has "read every story that was written about it" and examined the ordeal from every perspective. Yet he keeps coming back to the same paradox. He lost, yet, as a result, his opinion of other people has improved while their opinion of him has gone up, too.

"If I'd won, it woulda been some story, wouldn't it," he says with a laugh. "But if I'd won, nobody would have seen the sensitive side (of me)."

Not so long ago, if Curtis Strange had gone into the water at the 13th and 15th at the Masters, it might have been the ultimate grinder's nightmare. It might indeed have ruined him.

Now, although his golf game hasn't yet returned to its Masters level, the trauma actually made him better.

Where are we gonna aim this gypsy?

Why not right at the top?