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Original Issue

Power Struggle

The dunk, the dinger, the 350-yard poke. In every sport there is a
razzle-dazzle subspecialty that's as visually arresting for the
fans as it is viscerally irresistible for the players. Every
sport worth its multimillion-dollar TV contract has one--needs
one--not only for the Nielsen ratings, but also for the bar-stool
purists who otherwise couldn't lament the ruination of the game.

It's an old chestnut: Players seek the glorious (but largely
gratuitous) ESPN highlight rather than the utilitarian (but
effective) play. Hoops hopefuls of the '80s tried to match
Jordan's hang time but failed to work on their undependable jump
shots. Shameful! Young ballplayers of the '90s swung for the
fences like Sosa, but their batting averages cratered. Kids
today! Golfers of the 2000s get so caught up in "Drive for show,"
they "Putt for bogey." Oh, the humanity!

This season has made for delicious viewing because it has played
out like one of those videos hawked on late-night TV, the one
that stresses baseball's fundamentals to youngsters. Just replace
"hit the cutoff man" with "play smart and lay up," and you'll get
the idea.

La Quinta, Calif., Feb. 2--Jay Haas ends a showdown with Mike
Weir at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic by going for the green in 2
on the 543-yard 18th hole and dumps his ball in the water.
Afterward, Haas blames not his faulty four-iron but his long
drive. "I almost got too close [to the green]," he says. "I'd
rather go in there with a five-wood or something."

Let that be a lesson to the kids watching at home!

La Jolla, Calif., Feb. 16--Phil Mickelson, having pronounced his
equipment superior to Tiger Woods's in Golf Magazine, uses the
latest graphite-shafted super sabers to hack his ball around in
the trees in the final round of the Buick Invitational, losing to
Woods yet again. As Lefty bombs his lab-tested drives into the
rough--Gee, they looked great on the launch monitor--and Woods
dials down his "substandard" sticks to hit fairways and greens,
you can almost hear CBS analyst Lanny Wadkins pulling out his
hair over Mickelson's unabated vanity and his inability to
recognize it.

It's not how, it's how many!

Pacific Palisades, Calif., Feb. 23--Charles Howell, powerless to
resist trying to drive the 315-yard 10th at Riviera, makes a mess
of the hole in the final round of the Nissan Open, playing it in
regulation and sudden death in a total of nine strokes. Weir,
having tried to drive the green in each of the first three rounds
but playing the hole in one over par, lays up both times on
Sunday, birdies it twice and walks off with the winner's check
for the second time in three weeks. You can definitely hear ABC
analyst Curtis Strange wanting to wrap Howell's driver around the
lad's head as he challenges the young Georgian to a duel in which
they both play the hole 100 times.

Hey, kids: Discretion is the better part of valor!

In golf, razzle-dazzle versus bedrock fundamentals translates to
technology versus tradition, that well-chronicled debate that is
shifting in subtle and surprising ways. It has been a great year
for technology, but not because Ernie Els is blasting 400-yard
drives. On the contrary, it's because so many players have been
done in by the potency of their equipment that the need to
regulate it seems less urgent. Traditionalists fret that short
holes and courses are being made obsolete, but Riviera's tiny
10th made Howell's Great Big Bertha II a liability rather than an

CBS's Peter Kostis explained during the Buick how Woods's club
specifications are similar to those favored by Jack Nicklaus in
his prime, causing viewers everywhere to exhume that dusty set of
MacGregors from the garage. Amid talk of flex points, ball speed
and launch angles it might seem counterintuitive for Woods to set
his specs back to 1995, to say nothing of '75, but he has
reminded even gearheads that there's a point of diminishing
returns with technology.

Is this how the distance wars will end? Voluntary disarmament? No
way. A few pros will copy Woods and adhere more closely to
tradition--the march of technology slowed not by the USGA but by
the invisible hand of self-interest. Most will not. For amateurs
the quest to catch one on the screws is written in the genes, the
hell with where it goes. But for the pros it's more about the
constant search for the outer limits of capability, the quest to
be the guy riding atop the ziggurat, as Tom Wolfe put it in The
Right Stuff. Els is that guy; Mickelson and Howell are not. That
could change next week, though, for the chase is irrational,
unpredictable and, above all, irresistible.

COLOR PHOTO: ADREES LATIF/REUTERS FULL THROTTLE Howell's refusal to back off led to his demise at the Nissan Open.

So many players have been done in by the potency of their
equipment that the need to regulate it seems less urgent.