Golf is one of my passions--and writing about sports often helps keep it stoked. When an agent in Edinburgh, Scotland, said there would be a considerable delay in getting the car that would take me to and from the British Open, I hopped in a taxi and played nine holes at nearby Braid Hills, which also offered a breathtaking view of that magnificent city. I knew I had been too long in Moscow for the 1980 Olympics when, on a tour, I wondered if a 9-iron or a pitching wedge would be required to loft a ball over the Kremlin wall.

I may never get closer to heaven than the 11th tee of the Old Course at St. Andrew's, and I tell golfing pals that I know about a half-dozen courses like the palm of my hand--most of the public layouts in Montgomery County and Augusta National. The intimacy with the grounds nearly every golfer regards as close to sacred includes covering about a dozen Masters tournaments and tagging along with Jack Nicklaus during a nearly private practice round one year, when the conversation included his once seeing a snake near the 13th tee.

As you may have suspected, these have been the warm-up swings before getting to the ultimate thrill for any hacker, actually teeing it up at Augusta National.

The day after Ray Floyd's runaway victory in 1976, I joined a foursome that included Ira Miller of the San Francisco Chronicle. We shared a caddie, who was not overjoyed at the experience because he'd been raking traps during the tournament and was going from watching some of the smoothest swings on the planet to two of the ugliest.

The dumb decisions started before the round, when we chose to play from the tips, the very tee boxes Floyd and the others had used during the final round less than 24 hours earlier. We knew Bobby Jones designed the course as a daunting test for elite players but something very manageable for the less skilled. With fairways wide enough to land small planes on and no rough, someone from the member's tees not intimidated by the place should score at least as well as on his home course.

Partly because this was my first swing of the year, I may have been the first player ever at Augusta National to take a divot from the championship tee of the first hole. On one hop, the ball barely passed the member's tee. It finally rattled to the bottom of the cup five swings later for a double bogey.

Augusta's strength is its greens. Some are severely sloped, others feature mounds high enough to suggest they hide early-model sedans and all are shaved closer than a candy bar. On the third hole, for instance, I was on the green in the regulation two shots--and off in three.

I could go on and on--and almost always do. But the bosses don't want these ego exercises to last too long, so we'll filter everything else but the most memorable moments. The 10 on the seventh hole, when what seemed like a purely struck second shot on that short par-4 landed inches shy of the green and buried in the lip of the trap. There was a par, the only one during the round, on the par-5 No. 15: driver, layup short of the pond, wedge to 15 feet and two putts.

There were 103 strokes in all--and the best line I've ever heard to describe golfers playing courses far too tough for their games. It was Miller's--and it came after we'd both sprayed our tee shots about 30 yards to the right of No. 6, the downhill par-3 that plays close to 200 yards and usually has the pin planted in an area only flat for about the dimensions of a Ping-Pong table.

"We're playing this course," Ira said, "and we still can't get inside the ropes."

Ken Denlinger has worked for The Washington Post since 1966.

CAPTION: Tiger Woods and caddie Mike Cowan stroll toward 1997 Masters title at Augusta National.