Arnold Palmer, who is credited with broadening the popularity of golf in the 1960s, has written a letter to Deane R. Beman, commissioner of the PGA Tour, sharply criticizing some players on the pro tour for "discourteous and ungentlemanly behavior and thoughtlessness . . . that is despicable to me."

Reacting to the March 8 letter, and with Palmer's permission, Beman sent copies of the letter to tour members on April 16 with an accompanying memo, saying his office would not tolerate "repeated displays of bad conduct by the few players involved."

Palmer's letter comes at a time when players on the tour have been generally criticized for their lack of color and personality.

Without identifying any of the players, Palmer cited instances of "abusive language and displays of temperament," and said in the letter that "suspensions are in order for some of these incidents."

Palmer said, "It has been dealt with too often in the past merely with wrist-slapping."

In his memo, Beman said he had instructed his staff to try to identify and counsel "the players whose behavior reflects unfavorably on the tour." He also said that those who persisted could "expect major disciplinary actions."

The letter apparently was written on the last day of the Bay Hill Classic, played at Palmer's club in Orlando, Fla. Palmer said in the letter he believed the situation had reached the point at which "its effects are carrying beyond the individuals involved and reflecting unfavorably on the tour in general. It could have long-range and lasting negative repercussions."

He added, "Flashes of temper when directed at one's self is one thing, but when it becomes abusive and insulting toward the volunteer workers and spectators, it is another thing entirely."

He warned that golf could find itself in the "same sort of unpleasant situations that tennis faces today."

Palmer and Beman could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Several weeks ago, when Palmer attended the official opening of a real estate development in Prince George's County, he was asked what actions he would take if he were running the sport. "I suppose I would have a dress code and a conduct code that would be pretty severe," he said then. "We are seeing it now, misbehavior-type stuff."

Asked whether he ever took young players aside and offered them advice, Palmer said, "I don't need to tell them. Other people have told them. How are you going to regulate them? How are you going to regiment it?"

Although Palmer's letter referred to some "specific cases" that took place at the Bay Hill Classic, he neither described the incidents nor named the players involved. He did mention specifically, "the tactless and unfriendly attitudes too many of our players" take toward the amateurs who participate in pro-ams.

Jim Simons, who was elected by the players as a director of the PGA Tour Policy Board last October, said yesterday, "It's definitely a concern. It hasn't been a major problem. That particular week, there were several instances, maybe more flagrant. It just happened to be at Palmer's tournament, and it happened to his friends.

"He has very high standards, and he's not going to put up with those things. He did an excellent job explaining just why we couldn't put up with it. The players respect it coming from him. Certainly, he would not write it unless it was warranted. That particular week may have been a little worse than others."

Simons said it was his understanding that there had been three separate incidents the week in question, two involving one player, whom he declined to name. Simons said he had spoken to the player, and that one of the incidents involved a woman working as a scorekeeper who apparently got in the players' way.

"He had asked the person to stand in a different position a couple of times," Simons said. "It probably was out of ignorance, not spite. The player involved had a short fuse. I'm not making excuses for the player. It was totally wrong, John McEnroe-type behavior. Yet, a lot of people think it's exciting to see John McEnroe get excited. We just feel golfers are a class above tennis players."

Billy Casper, the 1959 U.S. Open champion, said, "It was something that needed to be said. Arnold said it in a very fine way."

Mike Souchak, a leading player on the tour in 1950s and '60s, said, "If he went to the trouble to write it, it was real serious . . . We worked too hard to establish what we have. You would hate to see the young people kick it in the garbage can."

But, he added, "if the young guys are half as smart as I think they are, they'll clean it up."