Bloomberg Wire Service – Apr 6, 2006 – Scott Soshnick – Hitting a baseball thrown by a big- league pitcher is the most difficult task in sports.

A pitch traveling at 90 miles per hour reaches home plate in less than half a second. Along the way it curves, swerves and sometimes even knuckles.

A golf ball, meantime, while smaller than a baseball, is a stationary target. No split-second decisions required. So, why then do golfers, including Tiger Woods, demand silence from the gallery while baseball players take their swings amid a chorus of cheers, boos and profanity.

“That’s a really great question,” says New York Mets reserve Julio Franco, who, at 47, is the oldest player in the major leagues and a career .299 hitter. “For me, it doesn’t make a difference what they do in the stands. You can overcome anything as long as you concentrate.”

Aside from the physical components of the game, such as hand-eye coordination, isn’t a professional golfer’s mental fortitude a big part of what sets him or her apart from the weekend duffer?

Just imagine if Tiger, who begins defense of his Masters championship today at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, contended with the distractions of, oh, let’s say Barry Bonds, whose alleged steroid use makes him the target of fan disdain wherever he goes. A fan even threw a plastic syringe at Bonds during the season-opener earlier this week.

Going Berserk

What would such a disturbance do to Tiger, who has been known to go berserk should a photographer’s camera shutter happen to click during his backswing. Tiger’s behavior is curious when you consider that his father, Earl, used to jingle keys while his son played so that background noise wouldn’t rattle him.

Anyway, Tiger and his cohorts will tell you the course is quiet because golf is a gentleman’s game. Then Tiger will hook a drive into the weeds and let loose a string of expletives.

If the golfers themselves can corrupt the gentleman’s code then why can’t fans yak while they tee off? The ability to focus on the task at hand is part of being a great athlete.

“Regardless of the sport’s culture, noise-levels, or crowd involvement, all sports ultimately come down to competition,” says John F. Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Florida. “The team or athlete who performs better mentally — removing distractions and pressure — always has a major edge.”

Mental Toughness

No athlete performed better mentally than Michael Jordan, who was perhaps the greatest basketball player in history.

On the court, the five-time National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player would regularly sink pressure shots with 19,000 hostile fans doing everything in their power to distract him. His mental toughness was his biggest asset.

And yet Jordan couldn’t hit a baseball. From what I hear, though, he’s a pretty good golfer.

So, too, is Jordan’s former Chicago Bulls teammate, Steve Kerr, who on the free-throw line was impervious to raucous, hand-waving fans.

“It’s sort of annoying when you see a golfer get so upset over the tiniest little thing,” says Kerr, an avid golfer. “Come on, show a little toughness.”

I’d be willing to wager that, given their druthers, a good number of golf fans would rather howl and holler than walk the course in silence.

“It would be fun if they could have a golf tournament where anything goes,” said Washington Nationals slugger Nick Johnson. “I’d like to see that.”

Poking Fun

So would I. Would Tiger wilt or adapt to his surroundings? Walking 18 holes with everyman golfer John Daly would be a hoot, don’t you think? It beats waiting for Tiger to unleash his latest 300-yard drive before the fans let him know, for the umpteenth time, that he’s the man.

Hollywood has long enjoyed poking fun at golf’s love affair with stuffiness.

From Rodney Dangerfield’s character in “Caddyshack” to Adam Sandler’s portrayal of hockey player-turned golfer “Happy Gilmore,” golf’s establishment is an easy target for joke writers.

“I can’t see Happy Gilmore coming to Augusta in my lifetime,” says 38-year-old Australian pro Peter Lonard.

Understanding the golf code of conduct requires a quick history lesson. The sport’s popularity in Scotland, where the game was invented, soared during the 16th century. By that time, golf had gained respectability among high society and was even played by Mary Queen of Scots. It became the sport of choice for nobles.

Mass Appeal

While clubs such as Augusta have retained their exclusivity, golf as a whole is played by the masses nowadays. It’s the common folk out there swinging Big Berthas and Pings. The pros had better get used to it.

“I don’t think the originators of golf knew that some day their sport would be embraced by ruthless mobs,” Murray says.

And thus, golf’s growth spurt presents a conundrum for Woods, who has inspired countless hackers to pick up clubs. The problem is that the newcomers want to play on their terms, not someone else’s.

If held back for too long there’s a chance they will ditch golf and go back to yelling at the likes of Julio Franco, who is more than happy to welcome them, shutter clicks and all.

“If the fan pays his money,” Franco says, “then he can have fun.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.