Richard Hutchinson's golfing nightmare began at the 13th hole.
As he and his three pals were putting, two players behind them refused to wait and started lobbing balls toward the green. When a ball almost hit Hutchinson, he whacked it into the woods. One of the trailing twosome then hopped on his golf cart and barreled toward Hutchinson and his partners.
''When he was a few feet away from me, I jumped up with my spikes and hit him in his chest and knocked him out of his cart,'' said Hutchinson, a 55-year-old financial consultant. The fracas ended with the police hauling off the man in the cart, Hutchinson said. ''The guy was just in a rage.''
From the Washington, D.C., area, where Hutchinson was playing, to Southern California, where course marshals and sometimes real marshals are trying to keep players in line, the genteel game of golf is under assault.
In an increasingly uncivil world, golf stood as a citadel of civility that elevated it above other sports. In golf, it's commonly said, one's manners are as important as how one plays. So are proper attire, honesty, respect for other players and the golf course. Even the language of the game is steeped in tradition. Golf course employees who informally monitor play are often called ''ambassadors,'' and the player who is allowed to swing first is said to have the ''honor.''
But at many of America's courses, the speech and behavior of players nowadays come from another place.
''It's just that people today don't go back to the traditions,'' said Jim Dout, executive director of the Southern California Public Links, an association with 25,000 members.
Burgeoning complaints about misbehavior on fairways last year prompted the U.S. Golf Association, one of the keepers of the game's 34 basic rules, to push a video titled ''The Spirit of the Game,'' in which Arnold Palmer urges golfers to ''realize there's more to this game than hitting the ball as far as a Tiger Woods does.''
As Palmer suggests, the changing behavior on the courses partly reflects the entry of a lot of new players, especially young ones, who are the fastest-growing segment of golfers. Some, weaned on MTV and extreme sports, don't care for what they see as old-fashioned manners and attire.
On a recent afternoon at the David L. Baker Memorial Golf Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., five teen-age duffers cut a high profile. They tossed clubs back and forth like swashbucklers. One player threw his club when his ball landed in a sand trap. Another, dressed in black baggy shorts and a flashy red belt, let out a yelp and rode his golf club like a broomstick pony. Later, he pushed his partner's ball into the earth with his tennis shoe, grinning.
From the perch of his golf cart, course marshal Joe Shaw watched it all, shaking his head. ''That's the future,'' the 70-year-old said.
But their antics were mild compared with what happened at the course on a Sunday afternoon in January.
As Orange County Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Szabo recounted the incident, one player twice hit balls into the group ahead of him. When the players asked him to be careful, he retorted: ''That's my game. It's just the way I play. If you don't like it, too bad.''
At the fourth hole, the man who was cautioned lashed out, slugging one of the complaining players in the face. ''After he struck him, he took off running through the parking lot and jumped the fence,'' said Szabo. The fleeing man, described as an occasional player in his 20s, was later caught, and fingered by the victim and other witnesses in a photo lineup. The district attorney is investigating, so public records aren't available.
Slow play is among the biggest bones of contention on golf courses. Even so, etiquette dictates that no golfer should play until the players in front are out of range.
Golf pros and course operators also complain that more players are gabbing loudly as another golfer tries to concentrate on the tee. They're also littering fairways and failing to observe some of the most basic rules of respect and courtesy, such as raking the sand trap for the players behind them, or repairing ball marks on a putting green.
It hasn't helped that more golf pros have been involved in controversial behavior . Or that movies or famous amateurs have portrayed golf in a less than dignified manner. President Clinton, for example, is notorious for taking mulligans, or multiple shots from the tee, a clear violation of USGA rules.
A USGA spokesman acknowledged that last year's match between the United States and Europe, known as the Ryder Cup, only heightened the concern over the lack of decorum on golf courses.
When Justin Leonard sank a 45-foot putt that capped a stunning American comeback in the competition, the U.S. players and spouses jumped up and down on the green in celebration, even though the match had not completely ended. The behavior of the Americans was roundly denounced by the British media, which compared U.S. golfers and their fans to soccer hooligans.
Some of today's biggest names in golf, such as Woods, David Duval and the young Spaniard Sergio Garcia, are also among the most colorful and emotional pros in the game, pumping fists or hopping around the green after sinking a long putt. They've kicked golf into the hip zone for young players, but as many see it, that excitement is a double-edged sword.
''We do want golf to be more exciting, and the golf industry wants more people to play it,'' said John Morrison, director of the Urban Youth Golf Program of Los Angeles. But, he added, ''the cooler you make the sport, the less you're able to enforce the rules and etiquette.''
Morrison is helping launch an academy this summer at Griffith Park in Los Angeles to teach youngsters to properly play the game.
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Law enforcement personnel in Waukesha County, Wis., can hardly believe the golf rage they have seen in recent years.
On the 18th hole of a golf course in the town of New Berlin, a 50-year-old man named Richard Stephens was playing with his 11-year-old son. Playing behind them was a trio of young golfers.
According to police reports, the trio became impatient and played on to the next hole as the elder Stephens appeared to be retrieving golf balls from a pond. As they passed, one of the threesome, Tony Osusky, asked Stephens' son, ''What the hell are you guys doing?'' That infuriated the father, who took a swing at Osusky.
Osusky, a 26-year-old carpet cleaner, said Stephens came at him ''like a crazed man'' but missed with his punch. Osusky said he then used a ''push-kick'' to keep Stephens away. Stephens staggered, then collapsed.
When police arrived, the 11-year-old was wailing as other golfers tried to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on his dad. But no one could revive him. An autopsy later determined that Stephens died of blunt force trauma to the chest and abdomen, and that he may have had a heart condition.
After an inquest, jurors in Waukesha County decided that Osusky was acting in self-defense. No criminal charges were filed.
''Golf is supposed to be this pristine gentleman's game,'' said Kevin Osborne, a Waukesha County assistant district attorney who worked on the case. ''But it's not much different from the rest of life and society.''
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