2005: A message to the dearly departed . . .

Orlando, Fla.

Hey golf, got a minute? Can we talk? No, not one of those touch the shoulders,

20-second, basketball sideline quickies. We really need a good heart to heart.

Have you seen what’s been happening to you the past couple of weeks? There was the hot-tempered fellow down at the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic who wasn’t too enamored that his stubborn little ball wouldn’t fall into the hole, so he gave it the finger. The bird. Not once, but a couple of times. Nice, eh?

One of those times it happened was Honda Sunday, when Pat Perez stood on the 12th green on Mirasol’s Sunrise Course. Not exactly a fan-free zone. Try explaining that act of poor judgment to your 5-year-old who’s watching his first golf tournament.

Perez’s animated histrionics even reached a point NBC didn’t know what he might do next – so the network stopped showing him live, even when he was in the second-to-last-group. Bet the sponsor that pays him six figures to carry its staff bag loved that.

Last week at Bay Hill, Mark Hensby­­ was struggling in the opening round, which played out over two days. He was 9 over par by the time he got to the arduous 18th at Arnie’s Place, where even good rounds go to die. Hensby hooked his tee shot left, and a marshal signaled it was out of bounds.

His fellow competitors, one of them a major champion, waited for Hensby to reload. He never did. He just walked off the tee up 18, assisted with a ruling, shook hands with Mike Weir and Andre Stolz on the green and called it a tournament. If you’re scoring at home, that’s officially the big DQ.

“If he wanted to walk off, that’s his business,” opined one interested observer. “It’s not very professional. Dealer’s choice.”

The man behind those words was Arnold Palmer, 75, Bay Hill’s gracious tournament host, who decided to take a pass on playing and for the first time in the history of the event became a spectator. He knows a little something about being a consummate professional. And frankly, some of the stuff he witnessed at his tournament did not make him very proud.

Dudley Hart’s group was trimmed by one when Hart stumbled to a 10 at the 18th hole, his ninth of the tournament, and decided it was time to hit the turnpike back home to Fort Lauderdale. Geez, two balls in the Devil’s Bathtub suddenly can really leave a guy bruised.

In a difficult week in which rain and even frost delays would dictate more stops and starts than your average NASCAR race, “WD” and “DQ” became frequently used acronyms.

You know the new PGA Tour slogan: These guys are soft. A couple of golfers who shot 78 or more in the opening round decided not to come back for Round 2; a couple of others chose not to return to the golf course Saturday to finish one or two holes of their suspended second rounds.

Tour policy dictates that a player who finishes a round can WD without providing a reason; however, any player departing in the middle of a round had better have a story – and it had better be something more imaginative than battling the double bogey flu.

At the weather-challenged Buick Invitational in San Diego earlier this season, Justin Leonard had no shot at making the cut, yet showed up Saturday morning before dawn, warmed up as he normally would, and played one hole to complete Round 2. It may have seemed a silly exercise.

Asked why he did what he did, he said, “Because I signed up to play the tournament.”

He birdied the par-5 18th hole, then deadpanned, “Look at all the momentum I gave myself for next week.” Perhaps the golf gods decided to smile upon him. He won the next week at Bob Hope.

Players on the PGA Tour will break out the mantra that they’re independent contractors who can do what they want. To that, we dare any “independent contractor” to make 14 starts this season (one below the minimum) and see what happens.

The real independent contractors? Golf fans.

Besides, this isn’t about going by the book. It’s about doing the right thing. Hensby, a man who lived out of his car at Cog Hill in Chicago for a spell in 1994, has made roughly $3 million in earnings since the start of 2004.

Surely he could have found the inner strength to tee up one more ball and complete a hole. As a professional who is part of the traveling show known as the PGA Tour, it’s not an option but a requirement. Shoot 70 or 80, but the show goes on. At least it should. And remember this: You are very privileged. There are thousands of dedicated muni chops who would wear persimmon briefs to play one single day on the PGA Tour.

Asked about Bay Hill’s smattering of early defections, Ernie Els said, “If you have one hole left and you’re 10 over par, it’s tough to come back. But you should look at it as you’ve got an obligation to the game. Put your pride away a little bit and go ahead and finish it out. . . . the integrity of the game calls for it.”

Ah, the integrity of the game. Golf sits on a golden threshold these days. It has an enticing opportunity. Baseball sits in Congressional hearings, its stars swinging under the dark cloud of steroids. Hockey simply sits, its players and owners unable to find common ground. A horrific fight in the stands in Detroit earlier this season gave the NBA a black eye that will not soon subside.

The transgressions of Perez at Honda and the early defectors at Bay Hill would appear rather minor in comparison, but that’s the point: Golf is different. Golf is honorable. Golf sets a higher standard. As bad as things seem to be some days, Tour players need to see the bigger picture.

In golf, there is always tomorrow.

That’s why Retief Goosen, who opened with a dismal 78 at Bay Hill, decided to return. He promptly shot 67-68-70 and finished fourth, earning $240,000. He, too, considered withdrawing, but was glad he stuck it out.

Any player in a similar situation would do well to ask himself one simple question the next time he’d like to slam the clubs in the trunk and peel out of the parking lot.

What would Arnie do?

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