Arnold Palmer has written a letter to the pro golf boss asking him to do more than slap the wrist of players engaged in behavior Palmer calls despicable, abusive and insulting.

Without strict punishment for misconduct, Arnold fears golf could get into "the same sort of unpleasant situations that tennis faces today."

If he were running golf, Palmer told our Jane Leavy, he would be in favor of a dress code and a conduct code "that would be pretty severe."

This must be a very big problem, because Arnold Palmer is a very big man in golf, having invented the game to fill TV time before Howard Cosell took over. Very big problems ought to be taken very seriously, and perhaps capital punishment, if that were severe enough for Arnie's dress code, would deter the return of argyle socks. Still, one wonders what would be left of golf if we removed despicable, abusive and insulting behavior.

Much is made of golf's being a gentleman's game. Bobby Jones, bless him, is a saint of the five-iron. The canonization investigation of Jack Nicklaus is under way, with only one more miracle (after the 230-yard two-iron to the 72nd hole at Baltusrol in 1967) necessary for his promotion. We are forever hearing stories of honor and courtesy, as if a golf course were the floor of the Senate.

This being the case, Palmer had good reason for being upset with players who, we must guess because Arnold gave no details, offended volunteer workers and spectators two months ago at the Bay Hill Classic on Arnold's own course in Orlando, Fla.

Whether any miscreant referred to a customer as the pits of the universe, we don't know.

The fact remains that if we remove despicable behavior from golf, all that's left is croquet for quiche-eaters. Abusive and insulting habits are developed early in a golfer's career as protection against forces beyond the comprehension of lay persons.

When we hit a shot precisely right and the jet-like exhaust from a passing butterfly blows the shot into a lake, what would Arnold have us do? Praise the orange in the pest's wings? Better we take a 12-gauge and blow the vulture out of the sky.

An old friend of mine, a kindly milkman, stood tall for years against the buffeting winds of misfortune that blow eternally into a golfer's face. June bugs had thrown their bodies in front of his birdie putts, deflecting them three feet off line, and UFOs melted his driver's shaft more than once, always causing the homeliest right-to-right push slice ever to leave a club that had been swung textbook purely.

On just such a push slice, my buddy quit golf.

He walked to the edge of a creek and, one by one, removed his clubs from his bag and threw them the seven feet down into the water.

Perhaps getting rid of the clubs would have been enough to make the rest of his life worth living. He took no chances. Next he lifted his golf bag in its pull-cart overhead, like Tarzan hefting an angry alligator, and he threw the whole business into the water.

Then he jumped in.

Right on top of the bag.

Up to his waist in the running creek, the kindly milkman engaged in despicable, abusive and insulting language.

Corn in the field next door covered its ears.

In response to Palmer's letter, Deane Beman has mailed a copy of it to all the touring pros along with a memo saying the commissioner will not tolerate "repeated displays of bad conduct by the few players involved."

The pros of which Palmer complained are exposed to Jobian tests, for the line dividing rich/famous from obscure/poor is maybe three strokes a day. If John McEnroe gets angry, he can still play his little runaround game. A golfer must stay cool. Scores rise as blood pressure does. So even the tickiest-tackiest thing becomes a large pain.

Bruce Crampton, now off the tour, used to curse hillocks for bumping his ball sideways. Many a click-click photographer would have been fried had Tom Weiskopf's glare succeeded in its ambition. J.C. Snead once cursed me because I moved as George Cadle hit, a story that goes to show you.

It mattered not to Snead that Cadle was 30 yards away with his back to me. Nor did it matter that Cadle was undisturbed until J.C. started shouting. What mattered was what the $75-an-hour shrinks call "displacement," meaning J.C. was playing terribly and had to take it out on somebody or something (old-timer Ky Laffoon dunked his errant putter in a lake, shouting, "Drown, you sumbitch, drown.")

George Archer, the former Masters champion, once knocked his ball behind a tree and sought relief because (he argued) the ball was in a burrowing animal's hole.

The burrowing-animal rule allows a player to pick up his ball with no penalty should it roll into a gopher hole, for instance, and Archer, taking up arms against a sea of troubles, demanded relief from the spot he was in.

"Those are burrowing animals," he told a PGA official.

"Those," the official said, pointing at little red things, "are ants."

"Ants dig holes," the Masters champion said.

"Golf balls are bigger than ant holes. Play it as it lies," the official said.

There followed a brief demonstration of insulting behavior.