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What substance stretches, bounces and absorbs newspaper comic strips? Yes, Silly Putty does all that but little else. Now there's a putty with similar characteristics and one more—it's actually useful. Bill Cox, a former Los Angeles-area golf pro, has invented Power Putty and markets it as a hand-strengthening aid. It is a kind of pocket-sized Nautilus machine for all the millions of compulsive tennis-ball squeezers out there.

It's Cox's theory that squeezers of tennis balls or spring-loaded hand grips are only strengthening the hand's extensor muscles, the ones that help to clench the fist. The flexor muscles, used to open the hand, are simply going along for the ride, he maintains, as are the muscles controlling the thumb. "This causes an imbalance," says Cox, who points out that a strong, sure grip is essential in golf, tennis, baseball and football.

To that end, he devised 12 different exercises. "We get all 35 muscles used to control the hand," he says. A complete Power Putty workout requires the user to grip, ball up, stretch out or jab into the putty, which has the Nautilus-like quality (because of a "secret additive" in the formula) of resisting your efforts in relation to your strength.

Power Putty has been a long time in development. In 1964 Cox was looking for some exercises to strengthen his golf grip. "I threw together about six eggs worth of Silly Putty," he says. After about a decade of non-commercial squeezing, he asked a local lab to whip up the same kind of uncured silicon rubber, in quantity. This he sold as "Exer-Fist," and in 1978 the additive was incorporated, the substance's name was changed and a serious marketing effort was begun.

These days, Power Putty is sold—complete with instruction booklet—in golf-course pro shops, sporting-goods stores and by mail order ($7.50 postpaid from Sports Health Products, 527 West Windsor Road, Glendale, Calif. 91204). And in case you're wondering, independent testing has proved that it can pick up "Peanuts," too.