Fairway of contenders sprouts at wide-open Masters golf tournament

The annual guessing game about who will win the Masters seems tougher than ever this year, with a dozen or more top contenders and no clear-cut favorites standing out above the pack.

It wasn't always thus. There was a day when the question boiled down to ''Sam Snead or Ben Hogan?'' - as when one or the other won it five of six times from 1949 through '54. Then it became the ''Jack and Arnie'' show, as Messrs. Nicklaus and Palmer took turns winning seven of nine titles between 1958 and '66 .

Things are different now, though, with no one or two players able to dominate the talent-laden fields of the 1980s in such a fashion. Indeed, you could ask 10 experts to predict this week's winner and probably get five or six separate answers.

One would have to be defending champion Seve Ballesteros. Not only is the famed Augusta National Golf Club course well-suited to the dashing young Spaniard's game (as shown by his victories in '80 and '83) but his third place finish in the Tournament Players Championship two weeks ago suggests that once again he is peaking at the right moment. Seve is bucking quite a tradition, however: in the 50 years of this tournament's existence, only Nicklaus in 1965- 66 has ever been able to win it back-to-back.

Then there is Tom Watson, who is hard to pick against in any major tournament - especially when the record book tells you that he has won five of them in the 1980s, while no one else has won more than two. Watson is a also two-time champion (1977 and 1981), and after a typically so-so early season he too seemed to be getting his game together at the TPC.

Also right up there should be Hal Sutton, who in only his third year on the tour has already established himself in the very top echelon. The 25-year-old native of Shreveport, La., followed up a brilliant 1982 rookie season by winning the money title last year with earnings of $426,668 and being named Player of the Year. He won the most recent major tournament played (the 1983 PGA) and will be going all-out in quest of his first Masters title.

Another perennial contender is Ray Floyd, who has won three majors (including the '76 Masters), and has usually played well at Augusta.

And of course one can never dismiss Nicklaus, who so dearly wants to add at least one more major championship to his incredible total of 17. Jack has gone nearly a decade since winning the most recent of his five Masters titles in 1975 , he hasn't won any major since 1980, and at this point he has to be running out of opportunities - but still it wouldn't really surprise anyone if he did it again. He just missed last August, in fact, finishing second to Sutton by one shot in the PGA.

One must also consider the hot golfers of the moment, of course - and lately there hasn't been anyone hotter than Fred Couples, a former University of Houston All-American now in his fourth year on the tour. Couples, who possesses that rare combination of long driving ability and putting finesse, is hardly a total unknown (he won $209,733 last year), but it was not until he won the TPC two weeks ago that he picked up much credibility as a Masters contender. Then when he followed up by tying for third at Greensboro, N.C., in the final tuneup for the big event, it boosted his stock up another notch.

But even this array only scratches the surface for the four-day test that begins Thursday. There are Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, co-second place finishers a year ago; Craig Stadler, who won it in '82; Andy Bean, the winner at Greensboro last weekend; Gary Koch, the only two-time winner this year; consistent regulars like Larry Nelson, Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin, Gil Morgan, and Johnny Miller; and even such veterans as 1969 champion George Archer, a surprising second at Greensboro, and Lee Trevino, who says the Augusta course is not suited to his game but who can't be overlooked after conquering the rugged Ponte Vedra, Fla.course to finish second in the TPC.

Then there is always the chance that some relative unknown will come out of the blue, as in 1979 when Fuzzy Zoeller, playing in his first Masters, defeated Watson and Ed Sneed in a playoff to earn the famed winner's green jacket.

And who will put on that jacket Sunday? It could be any of the aforementioned names, or, as the saying goes, ''none of the above.'' One thing is certain, though: whoever emerges on top after four days of pressurized competiton in this tradition-steeped event will most assuredly have earned his moment of triumph.

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