There wasn't anything wrong with Ben Crenshaw that a good stiff drink couldn't cure. A good stiff drink of radioactive iodine, that is.

Two years ago, Crenshaw was Masters champ. Last year, he was Masters chump.

Last spring, nobody could figure Gentle Ben. Only 33, he looked old, almost haggard. He'd lost 15 pounds and, although he ate "voraciously," he couldn't gain an ounce.

On the golf course, he couldn't hit it out of his shadow. The tee shot 20 yards behind everybody else's was always his. The malaise crept through his whole bag. His nerve was shot. His putting touch -- once a wonder of the world -- was nonexistent.

Break par? Sometimes he couldn't break 80.

"Boy, it's amazing what your mind can do to you," lamented Crenshaw. "I'm just worryin' myself sick. The harder I try, the worse I play and the more I worry. The more I worry, the weaker I get and I play even worse. It's a vicious circle. But if I can just have a couple of good rounds, I can get it goin' back the other way again."

That's what Crenshaw told everybody. Even his father heard the pitch and bought it. The easy-going Texan always had been the most sweet-tempered and worry-prone player on the PGA Tour -- perhaps the game's only candidate for a Too Nice For His Own Good Award.

How many major titles had Crenshaw squandered to anxiety? Those five second-place finishes in the big events were proof of how much his mind could damage his life. Took him 12 years finally to win that one Masters.

When your hobbies are bird watching, fishing and collecting golf artifacts, people have a tendency to tell you that you should stop worrying about finding old guttapercha and start digging up some new guts of your own.

So, for a year and a half Crenshaw just blamed himself, the way self-reliant golfers always are taught to look inward for guilt, not outward for causes to their problems. Miss a six-foot putt, call yourself a choking dog. Snap hook one off a Georgia pine, go hit 500 balls as penance.

Lose weight, lose hair, get weak, age a decade in months -- hey, just give yourself a good lecture on how, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

In such circumstances, the smart probably would get going, too. To a good doctor. But, as Crenshaw said, "I've never been too smart. I just wasted a year of my life instead."

Finally, enough people, including his father, told Crenshaw that he ought to get a complete physical before he started looking like Dorian Gray, last act. The examination indicated that he had Graves' Disease.

To diagnose it, you drink a cup of radioactive iodine, then watch your X-rays light up like the control panel of the Millennium Falcon. Crenshaw chugged it down like a double cherry coke.

The poor guy thought all his problems were in his head. Turns out they were all in his thyroid.

The gentle one's rev was just set too high. He burned fuel like a hummingbird on a caffeine jag. Amazing what a couple of pills a day will do for the old metabolism.

When Crenshaw won his green jacket, he said, "It's a sweet, sweet thing. I don't think there ever will be anything sweeter for me."

But time changes your mind about what tastes sweetest. Two years ago, Crenshaw still was married to his first wife Polly. Now, he's remarried, to the equally stunning Julie.

This week, Crenshaw has been wondering if the second time around might not be the best. "I never thought anything could top the first Masters win, because you never really know if you can win a major until you've done it. But I'd like to find out."

Crenshaw first drank his medicine last fall and, gradually, he's gotten fatter, younger and stronger. His weight is up to 163 -- almost back to his normal 170. He looks like the old handsome, boyish Ben and, finally, this week the first signs of rebirth have appeared in his dormant golf game.

In 1983-84, Crenshaw won more than a half million dollars and was seventh, then 16th on the money list, in the prime of a quality career. But he barely cashed a dime after mid-1984 and in 1985 he was 149th in money, his earnings down 92 percent. At the moment, he's 98th this season.

"But I started feeling better before I even got here," said Crenshaw. "I told people I actually thought I was playing better than when I won in '84."

On Wednesday, Crenshaw lost 50 bucks in a Nassau with three of his best buddies -- Spain's Seve Ballesteros, Australia's David Graham and South Africa's Gary Player. Leave it to Crenshaw to attract the classiest international associates. He came off the course delighted. His game was at their level again.

Thursday brought a 71. "Been a long time since this boy was under par. . . . Six months ago, I didn't have any days like this," he said. On Friday, it was 71 again and Crenshaw was in fourth place. A 74 Saturday pushed him to six strokes back, but not out of reach.

"When you're playing well, you can't believe you ever got in that mess," he said, bemused. "Such is the state of a golfer's mind. We're all very fragile."

The fantasy meter would blow a gasket if Crenshaw won here. Just to finish on the top 10 leader board probably would be a more reasonable fairy-tale goal for a man whose career, just weeks ago, seemed close to extinction.

"I'm hittin' it very well. I'm making some putts again. And I feel comfortable on this course," said Crenshaw with a hint of the bravado that many wished he'd discovered a decade ago. "I won't need any pep talks this weekend. I'm right there."

Back where he belongs.