Golfers may not be our best athletes or our most exciting entertainers. But they know how to act. These days, isn't that worth something?

A scene took place on the 18th green of the Blue Monster today that was typical of golf, yet would seem almost unthinkable in any of our other games.

Hubert Green, his dignity and his chances for victory in a shambles around him, took time to laugh. All that stood between him and the humiliation of blowing a big lead was an 18-foot putt. Yet he got a bad case of the chuckles.

"I was laughin' 'cause I'm supposed to be a professional golfer, [yet] I'd chopped it around for [the last] four holes and I still had a chance . . . . I was almost embarrassed to be there. That's not my style. I don't want to be thought of as a golfer who breaks his leg trying to get to the clubhouse . . . .

"The only way I could lose today was to give it away and I did," said Green, who led this Doral-Eastern Open by three shots with nine holes left, by two with four to go, yet ultimately lost to Andy Bean on the fourth hole of a playoff.

"It wasn't anybody else's fault. When a man makes three bogeys the last four holes, that's not professional golf at its finest, to say the least. But it happens. I think I just saw it."

If Green's laughter on that 72nd green was special, so was the behavior of Bean. If Green would just, please, miss that last lengthy putt, Bean would put $90,000 in his wallet. So, what did Bean do? Jangle change in his pocket? If you think so, then you only know hacker golf, not the sport as it's played at the virtuoso level. Bean went to his staggered foe and said, "Knock it in."

Considering Green's very recent golfing past, that was an act of mercy. The 39-year-old had (after bogeying the 15th and 16th holes) hooked his drive in the lake at the murderous 18th, then followed with a shot into a trap. Green said he was thinking, "Good Lord, I needed a par 4 to win and I might end up making 7 or 8. I could make a fool of myself .

"You can't pull against someone," said Bean, as though the thought -- common in other sports -- was almost beyond the civilized pale. "No sense making it rough. Might as well be as friendly as you can. It takes a lot of guts to stand up there and make a long putt at a time like that . . . . There's just a feeling of mutual respect.

"Lots of players out here are like that . . . sociable competitors. Look at somebody like Fuzzy Zoeller. 'Course old Fuzzy doesn't have any screws to hold him down."

Green did, in fact, make that lengthy putt at the 18th to salvage some honor and force a playoff. His nerves steadied by his sense of perspective and Bean's good sportsmanship, Green managed four solid playoff pars before Bean finally won with a six-foot birdie putt after a thunderous 290-yard drive.

In the 1980s, our standard has been the athlete who copes with defeat like a small child denied a chocolate. Jimmy Connors quits when a tough call doesn't go his way. Larry Holmes loses his title to a light heavyweight, then says Rocky Marciano couldn't carry his jock. The St. Louis Cardinals squander a World Series, then blame the umpire.

Perhaps we should listen to Green.

"I've been trying a new swing all week and most of those gimmick things don't hold up. I got burned a little. No big deal," said Green. "It's not much fun watching a professional golfer fall all over himself coming down the stretch . . . [but] it's not life and death. Some athletes make too big a deal out of their sport. They think the world owes them a living."

To those who don't know Green and Bean it might be easy to dismiss their sportsmanship as the work of two rich fellows who don't care terribly much whether they win or not.

That idea would never occur to those who saw the slender, hyperactive Green go through a horrid slump that plummeted him to 135th on the money list in 1983. No player in recent years battled harder to get back on top and few wins were more popular than his triumph at the 1985 PGA Championship.

As for Bean, he's always wanted to win too much and has been his own worst enemy. He thinks he blew last week's event at Eagle Trace ("wanted it too bad, didn't just let it happen"). For 11 seasons, Bean has always tripped himself on the edge of greatness with an excess of desire. "I'll sneak up on ya," Bean drawled this evening, "if I don't cut my own throat first."

No game undresses its protagonists, strips them of mental defenses, like golf. Yet no sport seems to force its players to grow and mature so well.

While many of our games almost seem to erode the character of those who play them, golf -- outwardly the cruelest and most capricious game -- leads us toward a kind of athletic wisdom.

Where many other athletes love to duck responsibility, the golfer has no one to blame; he's forced to develop self-reliance or else be crushed.

Where other games glamorize cheating, golfers have an honor code. If Bobby Jones could cost himself a U.S. Open by calling a penalty on himself, for a foul nobody else saw, then who can allow himself to do less?

Where other sports have guaranteed contracts and long-term deals, the pro golfer gets only what he earns and learns to accept that as a proper value. Green likes to joke to his wife that "welfare's been cut. It's time to play good."

Where many complain about bad breaks, the golfer takes "the rub of the green" as gospel. Permanent and ineradicable bad luck is part of his world view. Only coping with misfortune comes under consideration, not eliminating it.

In an illustrative final twist, as Green and Bean were preparing to hit their approaches on the final playoff hole, a man from CBS-TV asked if the players could delay their shots for a minute or two. The network, you see, was trying to splice the culminating shots of the golf tournament into the dead time between rounds of a prizefight.

Drop dead, was golf's answer.

Days like this remind us that the standards of behavior that golf takes for granted are almost beyond the imagination of the rest of our narrow, narrow world of sports.