AUGUSTA, Ga.

The best news at the Masters is the fast greens are back. And maybe Tom Watson is, too.

Doug Tewell was the innocent guinea pig who illustrated the greens issue. When he last played here in 1981, the Augusta National greens were a poa annua-infested mess. Poor unsuspecting Tewell. Since then they've changed from grass to glass. On Thursday, Tewell had a four-foot putt for birdie on the second hole, and a 25-foot putt for par on the way back.

For decades the scariest greens on earth were here. The best putters had nightmares. The worst lived them out.

One day years ago, Bruce Devlin stood at the back of the 18th green, held a ball under his chin, dropped it, then watched in horror as it nearly rolled off the front of the green.

Tom Kite thought the slickest rugs he ever saw were at the 1981 Memorial Tournament. "Now, that's second."

New pencross bent, now mature and low-mowed, has made Augusta's greens frightening once again.

So why is Watson giggling? Why is the sober laddie with the perpetual game face grabbing mikes and regaling folks with imitations of crowd roars? "Gretzky scores on the rebound!"

Why is Watson firing one-liners? "The crowds here aren't exactly like Greensboro last week where they did The Wave down the fairway and piled beer cans on your ball in the rough."

For 20 months, the man who invented the eight-foot gimme hasn't been able to buy a putt or win a tournament. The great putter didn't just go sour. He lost his touch about totally.

From 1980 through 1984, Watson was the No. 2 putter on the PGA Tour -- stunning because Watson hits greens and has few cheap, chip-close one-putts. But in 1985, Watson was 52nd in putting, this year 58th. That's not a slump. At 36, it could be The Start of The End. Arnold Palmer won his last major at 34.

"Trevino says you only got so many four-footers in you," Watson said.

On Wednesday, Watson was still in the weeds. Oh, he was chatting himself up. "I'm getting a few extra blisters. Lots of practice has always been my formula for success. Last year I didn't do that. I've changed my attitude. I knew I wasn't working hard enough."

Watson also had this fan mail tip running through his head. Law of Golf: when a guy with five British Opens starts listening to 18-handicappers, stop picking him in the office pool.

" The fan told me to read page 55 of my own book, paragraph two," said Watson. "That's 'Getting Up and Down.' Random House. $14.95. For you, $11.95."

Page 55, paragraph two concerns the vital millisecond when the putter stops going back and starts going forward. This movement should be deliberate, unhurried, as confident as Imelda Marcos pulling out her charge card.

When the deep recesses of the ego are in turmoil, one jerks the putter forward and a stroke once reminiscent of honey flowing over pancakes begins to resemble catsup being thumped from a bottle.

Armed with this thought, Watson hit the ball all over the South Forty in round one, yet returned with 70 and a piece of fifth place. "Just like old times." Scramblers have no pride.

Nine times Watson required only one putt and finished with 28 total putts -- his norm in bygone days. "That's what I've needed to do and haven't been able to do for a long time."

So, now we can all buy Watson stock again, right?

Not quite.

"Now, I have to think about mechanics, like changing directions slower. That's different. It's not as enjoyable. Frustration sets in."

Watson also has lost a gift for which there is no name: the capacity to envision the exact line that the ball will take into the hole. Watson has difficulty finding someone who can coach him on this gift since, except for Isao Aoki and Ben Crenshaw, perhaps nobody else has it.

Friday afternoon, Watson lived out his whole predicament in microcosm. He putted fabulously from inside a dozen feet until, as he stood in the 11th fairway, he was tied for the Masters lead at four under par.

But his full swing, that erratic rusty gate, forsook him in the Amen Corner. He airmailed his shot past the 11th green, went in the water and had to sink a 12-footer for bogey. Next, he underclubbed at the 12th, splashed his tee shot and then dumped his next in the front trap on the way to a triple bogey.

He ended with a 74 -- 144 two-day total -- good for a place on the leader board, tied for 10th, five shots behind Seve Ballesteros. But it wasn't at all what Watson wanted, or what Old Tom would've made out of such a grand opportunity.

As the greatest golfers age, they must, piece by piece, rediscover the swing epiphanies that were once their normal state of grace. As soon as one puzzle seems solved, another mystery appears. This is heavy lifting for a man with two young kids and more money than he'll ever spend.

For the moment, Watson vows he's still up to the task. He is not content yet only to imitate the cheers of the crowd. He still wants to hear them for himself.