Par Tee On!

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"But the truth is, the way the game is now, you can't stay out until 1 a.m. and drink 10 beers and expect to have any chance the next day. With the competition and the money now, you've just got to keep your nose to the grindstone. It takes some of the fun out of it. But that's the way it is if you want to be competitive."

Professor Mike Clark studies bad sports behavior at Michigan State University. International soccer long ago went to hell, he says. Football and basketball are in the advanced stages of decline.

Golf is just starting on its way downhill, in part, he says, because of the Phoenix Open. But there are numerous other factors.

Tiger Woods' celebrity has brought millions of nontraditional golf fans to the game, he says, people who are still learning the etiquette of the game. Basketball and football audiences have created an atmosphere of garish intimidation, that "not in our house" partisanship. Television highlights shows have trained viewers only to find pleasure in dunks, bombs, big drives, big backspins and holes in one.

American culture is more in-your-face. Golf has begun selling itself as a more exciting sport. Golf tournaments are becoming the size of pro football games.

Then, he says, these trends in American culture collide with the city of Phoenix in January at this historically crazed event.

"You've got this transient population, you've got all these people who are new to the area and all these college guys and golf nuts and they all come together on a sunny day and consume massive quantities of beer on this gigantic golf course," Clark says. "What do you expect will happen?"

But the Phoenix Open, he and others say, is still an aberration. And it's nothing compared to some other sports events.

"I don't see people surrounding the 16th green waving those foam stick thingies like in basketball," Clark says. "I don't see Tiger Woods diving into the crowd after a putt like the Packers."

For the most part, the perception of most everyone who observes or plays or organizes the Phoenix Open is that the lack of decorum probably won't get any worse. The most serious problems, most say, are the occasional drunk assholes who take issue with an individual player. Perkinson says tournament security will be beefed up and those who "get out of line" will get tossed out.

The problem, especially with the Phoenix Open, is figuring out what is "out of line." In some ways, it's like a Supreme Court justice trying to define pornography.

"It's the guy who is showing a player or other fans disrespect," Perkinson says. "We don't want it at our tournament and we don't have to have it at our tournament. If somebody is being a nuisance, that's it. They'll have to leave."

Then Perkinson, as host of the most hospitable tournament in the world, quickly backs away from his bad cop bravado. This tournament is about fun and fellowship, the same as always, he says. He challenges you to find 120,000 people in one place on Earth having this much fun with this much civility. This isn't a black mark on the reputation of Phoenix or golf, he says. It's a testament to everything great about the game and the city.

"While we'll work and work and keep working to clean up the few problems, we never want to do anything that takes away from what is so special about this thing," Perkinson says. "This is a unique event. And it's uniquely Phoenix. We want to keep it that way."

Contact the author at his online address: [email protected]

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Robert Nelson