The Romans, the Dutch and the Chinese, among others, have offered to accept partial blame for the invention of golf. Obviously, any grassy place with shepherds and crooks could have done it. In all creation, nothing was more inevitable than a man raising a cudgel to vent some hideous rage on the most innocent object in his path.

Golf may be a playable lie or an unplayable lie, but it is a lie all the same. Although the game advertises itself as a boon to both physical and mental health, not a single participant in 800 years has looked or felt better after a round. Intended to be a display of self-control, fundamentally it reveals temper. Implied in the sport's sociability are honor, forthrightness, friendship, kindness, courtesy, generosity and understanding. Yet, not one amateur in 100,000 plays by the rules.

More than just a faint embarrassment, golf has served this country as something of a national joke, a reliable prop for Bob Hope. To Dwight Eisenhower, the most significant figure in U.S. golfing history, it was busywork laced with phenobarbital. Present politicians cringe with shame for it.

Because he is kin to a famous trophy, the Walker Cup, George Bush feels obligated to play golf. But with the Secret Service hanging off his cart in overdrive, he shoots as fast as he can and gets it over with as quickly as possible.

Being a proficient golfer is Dan Quayle's historic liability. Several times a week, he has to soak his left hand, his glove hand, in Man-tan. When Quayle made a hole-in-one not long ago at Pine Valley in New Jersey, he was mortified practically to the point of hyperventilation. "When it went in, I just said, 'Oh, God, don't let this get out.' Every time we go on the road, they watch me. They can't wait to catch me playing."

"Anyone found guilty of golf," Alistair Cooke intoned many years ago, "should be barred forever from holding public office."

It goes without saying that, at the highest level, golf is a lily-white activity. At least, it went without saying until recently, when the founder and owner of Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham lit a match to next week's PGA Championship. "We have a right to associate or not to associate with whomever we choose," said Hall W. Thompson, 67. "The country club is our home, and we pick and choose who we want."

He went on to speak highly of women, Jews, Italians and Lebanese, concluding patriotically: "I think we've said that we don't discriminate in every other area except the blacks." Should a member have a black friend, would the friend be welcome at Shoal Creek as a guest? Theoretically, Thompson conceded, yes. But has it ever happened? "No," he said, "that's just not done in Birmingham, Alabama."

Or in many other places, either. Starting with Augusta National, the pristine home of the Masters tournament, virtually all of the great stops in golf are exclusionary. During the '50s, Clifford Roberts, the late massah of the plantation and keeper of Bobby Jones's holy relics, summoned the sportswriter Red Smith to his New York City apartment. Alarm bells were ringing.

The U.S. Open was in progress and two black golfers were near enough to the top eight or 16 -- whatever the cutoff figure was -- to be in danger of automatically making the Masters. "What do I do if one of them qualifies?" Roberts said in a panic.

With flashing eyes, Smith responded: "You make sure he receives the very first invitation you send out."

"But there'll be trouble," Roberts whined.

"Exclude him," Smith said, "and you'll find out what trouble is."

That emergency passed, but Smith and others kept making trouble. By the early '70s, Roberts actually became desperate for the color barrier to be broken, as he would put it, to get the monkey off his back. At a pretournament press conference, he broached the relentless subject before anyone else could. "A lot of people here would be happy if that boy {Jim} Dent were to win a tournament and qualify for the Masters," Roberts said. "He used to caddie at the club, you know. His brother is still a maitre d' here."

Someone inquired as to the brother's first name. After conferring in whispers with several aides, Roberts replied: "We just call him 'Dent.' "

Asked if the National had a caddies' day, if the caddies ever played the course (admittedly a ridiculous question), Roberts allowed that they sometimes could be seen hacking around the parking lots with an old niblick or mashie furnished by a member. "They have no trouble finding balls," he cackled, "if you know what I mean."

Ultimately Lee Elder smashed the tournament's color line, threw open the colonial doors and found only Calvin Peete waiting there. Weary and ill in his eighties, Roberts eventually shot himself to death on the course.

The PGA says it is committed to places for the next few years, but after that will consider membership policies in selecting tournament sites. Toyota, IBM, Anheuser-Busch and American Honda have pulled ads from next week's telecasts. So far, ABC is out about $2 million. And pickets are expected.

Peete, who neglected to qualify for this PGA Championship, said under the circumstances he would have withdrawn if he had. Lee Trevino, the driving-range pro who won his PGA at Shoal Creek in 1984, told the Providence {R.I.} Journal he is considering pulling out.

"The fact that Toyota, which is my sponsor, and IBM have announced they've decided to drop their commercials from the telecasts has me thinking," he said. "Hey, I'm a member of the PGA and I hate to see my organization shoot itself in the foot."

Meanwhile, Shoal Creek's members are reported to be engaged in a hurry-up search for a black man, any black man, who can both afford the $35,000 initiation fee and tolerate their company.

I don't think they'll find him.