His tan-ness, Arnold Palmer, was standing on the ninth tee of the Prince Georges Country Club recently, improving the scenery. For the last 25 years, Palmer has been embellishing golf with his manner, his manners and his tan. When Arnie talks, golf listens. Armies mobilize.

In March, Palmer wrote a letter to PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman deploring the "ungentlemanly behavior and thoughtlessness" of some of the tour's leading pros and saying "it is despicable to me."

On April 16, Beman circulated copies of the letter to the PGA members, warning that those who persisted could expect "major disciplinary actions." Three days later, Palmer was in Prince George's County chatting with the locals ("the pilot of my plane said the beautiful weather would have been here last week but the red tape held it up") and talking about the state of the tour.

"I was in awe of them when I was a young man, the press, the galleries," he said. "They were important to me. I wanted them to recognize what I was doing . . . My father was a very stern and firm man. One thing he drove home to me was being polite, giving respect . . . The difference today is the players are so intent. We've lost some of those things. We now think of monetary things alone and don't have to be friendly. We just go out and do our own thing. That doesn't mean they're bad guys.

"They are making their way in the world. First things first. You can't blame them for that."

In golf, unlike some other sports, players don't just come back for old-timers day. Many still play on the tour, and on the seniors tour, with its $1.7 million in prize money this year. "In other sports, you are not competing with Cy Young," Beman said. Not for the ERA title, and certainly not for the fans' affections.

Golf has a built-in generation gap. So it seemed appropriate to ask some of the game's elder statesmen their opinions of the younger generation. Some of the seniors were sympathetic and supportive, some a bit cranky, perhaps a bit envious. All had something to say.

"They're nice boys," said Gene Sarazen, 80, who won everything there was to win, including the Grand Slam. "They're not rude." Of course, he said, sometimes they do just "stand up there like wax models."

Palmer's letter criticizing some pro golfers for being ill-mannered ironically comes at a time when they are also being criticized for being too mannered. Some people think they are boors. Some seniors, like Sam Snead, say, "You feel like you're playing with a couple of robots."

Baseball players have been known to spit out some choice verbs along with their tobacco juice, but the fans don't generally hear them. Golf galleries are more intimate. They also are more country club and expect country club etiquette.

Some of the younger players whisper that some of their elders are a bit priggish. "They are," said Jim Colbert, who is 41 and a member of the tour's policy board. "I guess I shouldn't have said that."

Curtis Strange, who was involved in two incidents at the Bay Hill Classic, says people are overreacting to Palmer's letter because Palmer wrote it.

But some of the game's elder statesmen grumble that the young fellows play too slow, party too little and expect too much. "They're all out there for the almighty dollar," said Jimmy Demaret, the three-time Masters winner, who will be 72 Monday. "They come out of college and say, 'Where's my agent, my make-up man, my lawyer and my golf course?' Something's got to be done.

"Most of us came out of the caddy ranks. "We learned how to say, 'yes sir' and 'no sir.' "

Many seniors say they hear complaints from people paying up to $1,000-1,500 to participate in pro-ams. The complainers say some young players are grouchy, grumpy and uncommunicative. Pro-ams generate on the average $200,000 a week. Charlie Sifford, who was the first black on tour, says many of the amateurs would rather play with the seniors: "One guy told me, 'We went 18 holes and the player never said, "good shot" or "the ball is going to break this way." ' I think they're going to have trouble getting amateurs to play. Without pro-ams, we're going to be hurting for money."

Beman doubts that. He says the problem is not widespread. Still, the PGA is considering changing the method of determining which pros play in the pro-am. Under the current format, the top 42 money winners in the tournament that week are required to play.

Golf always was a mannerly game and, perhaps because of that, the mercenary and sometimes merciless attitudes the elders observe are more jarring to them.

What's wrong with the game? "Money, sweetheart, money," said Tommy Bolt, the winner of the 1958 U.S. Open who is 64 and still ornery.

Can you spell that out?

"M-O-N-E-Y."

"Too much pressure, too much money," Sarazen said. There is $14.7 million in prize money this year, to be precise.

"With a $2 nassau, you don't care much," said Snead, who still cares at age 69. "Now if it's $5,000, you're watching to see if the fella's moving the ball. You're looking for every little thing that might put a foot on them. It ceases to be fun."

All golfers strive to control their emotions, as they must to be successful. Billy Casper, who is into hypnotism, thinks golfers may be effectively putting themselves into trances out on the course.

It may just be that in their effort to control the emotion that goes into a $5,000 putt, golfers are putting themselves on automatic pilot, channeling personality along with nerve, down the shaft to the ball, into the game.

"Sam Snead is a freak of nature in that he can swing the golf club the way he can at 70," said Jim Simons, who is 39 years younger. "Lee Trevino is a freak of nature in that he can switch the emotion on and off."

Demaret doesn't buy the idea that increased stakes mean increased angst. "There are an awful lot of spoiled brats on the tour," he says, though "less in golf than the other sports combined."

The young guys just don't appreciate what they've got, the refrain goes. "Maybe if we had a little turn down (it would) wake 'em up that everything isn't mashed potatoes and gravy, that we have to sell ourselves a little," said Miller Barber.

Many of the seniors, Simons says, made their money playing exhibitions "where they had to be highly entertaining," had to sell themselves and their personalities. The game changed when players stopped being golf pros (those who work at a club) and became professional golfers, Palmer says. "That in itself made a difference in the personality of the people involved."

To which, some of the seniors reply, what personality? "I can't tell 'em apart," said Sifford. "I can't name one out there with any personality."

"If someone asks 'em a question, they can't answer it, half of 'em," said Bolt. "If you say hello, they can't answer."

The reason, he says, "There's so many lucrative endorsements, their agents force them not to say anything that might be detrimental to their image. There's very few outspoken ones . . . They are not supposed to say anything against City Hall. I never went along with City Hall. I knocked 'em a bit. Of course, that made me temperamental."

"They've taken all the character away," said Snead (well, not quite; he's still around). "There would be some character if they turned 'em loose. They keep a thumb on 'em."

They? "Beman, of course, he's the top dog," Snead said. "He wants to keep the sport clean. . . You've got to act like a showman. If you cuss, it's a fine. If you throw a club, it's a fine. Jack Nicklaus said before long they'll be marching to the tee in cadence."

Art Wall says he thinks there's plenty of color, plenty of personality out there. But then again, he says, "You're talking to dour Art Wall."

A lot of tour golfers do bear a striking resemblance to each other. Sure, they're all blond, says Don January, who won the PGA championship in 1967. That's what happens if you stay in the sun long enough. He says the only thing wrong with golf is "it's overexposed (after three years of slippage, the ratings were up last year, the PGA says)."

You see the same people over and over again, Colbert says (the leaders and Nicklaus, no matter what he's doing), because that's who the networks choose to show. Many golfers say that, because of the sheer number of players capable of winning each week, it is unreasonable to expect one man ever to dominate the sport, and therefore the public's imagination, as Palmer did.

Will there be another Arnold Palmer? "There's one out there already, Tom Watson," January said. "The public just hasn't accepted it."

The genealogy of the sport has something to do with that. "We will find out they are not all the same," Palmer said. "The cycle is changing. It changes every 10-20 years, the cycle of people and pros and what people want to see."

In the 1920s, there were Walter Hagan and Bobby Jones and Sarazen; in the 1940s, Ben Hogan and Snead; in the 1960s, Palmer and Nicklaus. The time has not yet arrived for the next succession. "It was the same situation in the '20s with Hagan and myself," said Sarazen. "He was 10 years older. Palmer is fading. Nicklaus is holding on. We've got the same situation. Hagan was what Palmer was in his time, a great personality . . .Hagan used to give all the parties. He was going out with some woman once who had a title. He took a whole party with him (to see her) . . . The players were his chaperones."

Today, it's a little different, he says. Everyone wears long pants. "They're home boys. They don't go gallivanting around like we did. We had a lot of fun. We were always trying to dig up a party. We didn't do too bad."

Tom Watson? "I call him Huckleberry Finn. . . There'll be another Arnold Palmer come along, as soon as those other fellas disappear. You'll be surprised how much Tom will change when Nicklaus gets out of the way. He'll have more freedom . . . I was the same way with Hagan. When he went out of the picture, I was more outspoken. It's just natural."

In golf, the chant is: the king is dead, long live the king. But the kings tend to linger.