What golfers play is not always golf. More than most games, the civil sport suffers from players who shatter its basic rules for their immediate pleasure. To a point, that's fine.

Golf only is complex when one player seems to be getting an unfair advantage over another. Which brings us to what the over-50 crowd considers a major show this week: the U.S. Senior Open.

The fuss matches that grand body of thinkers, the U.S. Golf Association, and a most appealing man of sport, Charlie Owens. The issue is a fairly familiar one: should golfers ride or walk?

If this is your first experience with Owens, too bad. He graces Post colleague Tom Boswell's most recent book, "Strokes of Genius." By way of introducing him, Boswell writes of Owens:

"What's most unusual about America's latest sports hero? That he celebrated his 56th birthday recently {Owens since has turned 57}? That he limps with a stiff {fused} left leg? That he's a black in a white sport?

"That he wears thick dark glasses because he is, at times, almost blind from an inflammation of the iris? That he is the only successful player on earth who hits the ball cross-handed?

"That he uses a bizarre, 50-inch putter to take pressure off his bad back? . . . Owens epitomizes the Senior Dream that it's never too late."

Because of war wounds, an auto accident and other lousy luck, Owens needs a cart to carry consistenty excellent play through 18 holes. The Senior PGA Tour permits carts, over the strong objections of Arnold Palmer and some others.

What is okay for the Senior PGA Tour is not for the U.S. Senior Open. The USGA runs that tournament, and is very firm about everybody walking.

The USGA said Owens could play in its Open, but couldn't ride. Crutches were allowed, USGA Executive Director of Rules and Competition P.J. Boatwright said, and Owens used them on the hilly holes of the Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn., during Thursday's first round.

Limping along, Owens managed a one-over 37 on the front nine. On the 10th tee, he could go no farther and withdrew. Graciously, the USGA sent a cart to haul him back to the clubhouse.

So who is right here?

Well, it's a touchy matter. Players who ride obviously have a distinct advantage over walkers, especially in a four-day tournament in July involving players over 50.

Like anything else in life, golfers playing against each other should abide by the same set of rules. That is far different from golfers casually engaged in golf.

The nongolfing reader might not appreciate the difference between playing against and playing with, although it's a major one. Besides, golf should never get too sticky, because its intent is very straightforward: you tee the ball up on each hole and don't touch it again until it lands in the cup.

Well, mulligans have intruded on the game. Those usually are takeovers on the first tee, though I know players who save them, like squirrels with acorns, for even worse trouble later on.

A friend is reknowned for taking "retroactive" mulligans. I once was joined by a stranger whose first-tee policy was "hit till you're happy."

My kind of man.

Who does not know at least a half-dozen golfers who play winter rules from Nov. 1 to Oct. 31? At a club in South Carolina, mischievous companions presented a hacker with a shoe on which was clamped the head of a 5-iron, so he could kick the ball out of the rough in a classier way.

I care not a whit how anyone in my group plays, unless a wager is involved. Then we establish some rules, same as the USGA does for the sport and its tournaments.

I mostly agree with what the USGA does. There are so many rules mainly because so many bright scamps have found ways to one-up the competition.

Still, I think the USGA is wrong for not letting Owens chase his shots in the Senior Open in a cart. And not out of pity or any other heart-grabbing excuse even he would reject.

Owens should have been allowed to play the Senior Open on his terms because that is how the USGA invited him in. Here's why:

His entree was finishing among the top 25 money winners on the senior tour last year. Period. I do not believe the USGA rule said top 25 money winners who did not ride carts.

There surely are players walking in the Senior Open who use carts on the senior tour. They have no trouble with the USGA's judgment about Owens. Neither would I, if the USGA did not seem so contradictory.

On the one hand, it says everybody must walk in the Senior Open; then it invites anybody who finishes among the top 25 on the senior tour, no matter how.

To me, this is as ill-advised as using a driver in a greenside bunker. Very possibly, there is a player in the Senior Open who got there by some rule unique to the course he was playing. That seems no different than how Owens finished among the top 25 on the senior tour.

"You can't treat one person different," Boatwright explained earlier in the week. "How do you make a distinction {between} who can {ride} and who can't?"

Seems to me the distinction had been made long ago. By the USGA.