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Does Power Corrupt?

Absolutely, say Tiger Woods and others who worry that high-tech golf equipment--and the threat of steroids--are hurting the game

Golf is a powergame, a point driven home by a recent confluence of events in Ohio that rockeda sport that has always been resistant to change. In Springfield on Aug. 22,the Ohio Golf Association held a tournament in which competitors were compelledto use identical balls that had been engineered to fly roughly 10% shorter thanthe average rock. (dead-ball golf is what headline writers at The ColumbusDispatch called the attempt to put the toothpaste back into the tube.) Then, inAkron last week, Tiger Woods took time out from winning his fourth straighttournament, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, to stump for the implementationof performance-enhancing drug testing in professional golf. It was a publicrebuke to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who has staked out a see-no-evil,hear-no-evil position on steroids.

Finchem touchedoff the steroid controversy when he said at a pretournament press conference inAkron that there is no need to test his Boy Scouts in spikes. He cited "theculture of the sport, the history of the sport: It's just as important to aplayer that he is playing by the rules as it is how good he hits the shot."Added Finchem, "The fact that players [in other sports] take steroids isnot evidence to me that players in this sport are. I have no evidence ofplayers taking steroids in this sport."

It was a curiousstatement. In the absence of testing, what kind of evidence could he have?Locker room gossip? There is already documented steroid use in high-stakesgolf. A 2005 survey by the NCAA found that 1.3% of its golfers had juiced,allowing them to potentially enjoy the twin benefits of an increase in clubheadspeed and a greater ability to endure and recover from the rigors of hittinghundreds of balls a day on the driving range.

Woods, who cameout of Stanford 10 years ago as skinny as a one-iron and built up his bodythrough countless hours in the gym, is wary of competitors who might takeshortcuts. Last Thursday, when Woods was asked about Finchem's steroidsstatement, he said, "I think we should be proactive instead of reactive. Ijust think that we should be ahead of it and keep our sport as pure as canbe." Woods offered to be the first in line to be tested.

The man whoushered in the era of the long ball has spoken out against unnatural powerbefore. In 2003, when his distance advantage off the tee had been largelyeroded by players who were quicker to embrace technological advances, Woodscalled on Finchem to institute testing to catch drivers that were hotter thanUSGA limits. Woods got what he wanted, sort of. By January 2004 such a test wasin place, though in typical Finchem fashion, player participation isvoluntary.

It was anopen-minded band of volunteers that showed up when the OGA staged its one-balltournament, bringing to life an idea that for years has been kicked around byeveryone from Jack Nicklaus to recently retired Masters chairman HootieJohnson, who grew weary of annually having to tear up his golf course to keeppace with advances in equipment. (Augusta National has grown more than 500yards, to 7,445, since Woods's overpowering victory in 1997.) OGA presidentHugh E. Wall III said that maintaining the relevance of older, shorter coursesin his jurisdiction was the primary motivation for testing therestricted-flight ball. "[We have] great courses, but many don't have theresources or the real estate to expand to 7,400 yards," Wall toldGolfWorld. "[We want] our member clubs to see there may be another option... other than bulldozers."

Thus everycompetitor at Windy Knoll Golf Club received a dozen balls with an OGA logo anda side stamp of CHAMPIONS 08222306 (the name of the tournament and its dates).All other details about the ball were supposed to be top secret, but bytournament's end word had leaked that it was manufactured by Volvik, an obscureKorean company. (A U.S. manufacturer examined the OGA ball for SI and reportsthat it was a three-piece, dual-core construction with a Surlyn cover and 446dimples.) These instant collector's items left most players pining for theirregular ball. Derek Carney of Dublin, Ohio, typified the conflicted attitude:He agreed that something has to be done to protect older courses but said thathe didn't like the OGA ball "because it doesn't benefit me."

Such grumblingmerely previews the howls of protest that would accompany any efforts to rollback the ball on the PGA Tour, where players have spent years using launchmonitors and computers to find optimal combinations of balls, shafts andclubheads. The irony of the OGA event is that it is PGA Tour pros who threatento make a mockery of classic courses. Yet bifurcation is a dirty word in golf.Differing rules for pros and amateurs would destroy the business model of the$4 billion equipment industry, which is built on stars like Woods being paidhandsomely to peddle their gear to weekend hackers.

Golf is stillgrappling with the ramifications of the boom-boom ethos that has redefined thegame, but the almighty buck remains the sport's most influential force. When itcomes to reigning in the power game, steroid testing will be an easier sellthan dead-ball golf. Especially when Woods is the salesman.

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''Senator Mitchell still has not contacted a keyplayer in the BALCO scandal, Jason Giambi'' --GOING NOWHERE? PAGE 40