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By Jim Litke of the Associated Press
 
Just in case the PGA Tour ever gets serious about testing for illegal equipment, cheaters are advised to memorize the following:
 
'This is my practice driver. I have it just to put on a show for the fans. I like to make people happy and I do that on the driving range.'
 
Pause and then look mournfully into the camera.
 
'I was getting ready for my round and I picked the wrong club. I feel sorry. I apologize to the tour, my fellow golfers and my fans.'
 
It might not look like much of an alibi in print, but a slightly different version worked pretty well for Sammy Sosa.
 
Besides, after commissioner Tim Finchem unveiled the tour's plan on testing for 'hot' drivers, the chances of anybody actually being caught are about the same as Phil Mickelson winning a major.
 
For one thing, the tests won't be mandatory, in keeping with the time-honored tradition of golfers calling their own fouls.
 
For another, the portable device that measures how quickly a golf ball springs off the face of a club at impact -- called the trampoline effect -- won't be rolled out until next January. The tour considered trying the test this week at the Western Open after being stung by rumors and warned by its major breadwinner, Tiger Woods, to do something about what he called a growing number of golfers wielding illegal drivers.
 
But those plans were abruptly shelved, a decision that infuriated Woods. And what Finchem said Tuesday, after meeting with the PGA Tour policy board and just before Woods tees it up at the Western, likely won't provide much comfort, either.
 
The commissioner said he didn't believe any golfers were cheating, though some might have inadvertently put 'hot' clubs in play after receiving them from manufacturers. Finchem did not say whether he also believed in the Easter bunny.
 
'The rumors are running rampant right now, and we need to get the rumors out of the game,' the commissioner said. 'The only way to do it is to be able to verify.'
 
If only it were as simple as a voluntary test.
 
From the late 1960s through 1995, gains in distance were measured in feet and didn't total the equivalent of a first down. But once titanium was introduced in drivers, the springlike effect has moved the chains down the field twice in just the past seven years.
 
When Woods started out on tour in 1996, the average driving distance was 266.4 yards. Last year, it was 279.8; this past February, 288.9.
 
In 1997, Woods was second in driving distance at 294.8. He never varied more than three yards since and finished second or third every year through 2001. Last year, he was sixth at 293.3. This year, at 292.2, Woods is 30th.
 
But Tiger is not the only guy changing places.
 
Last year, only John Daly averaged more than 300 yards. This year, four golfers are above that high-water mark, led by Hank Kuehne at 316.6. Last year, Boo Weekley finished second at 297. This year, that would place him 11th.
 
Finchem insisted the tour is constantly crunching the numbers, and that rules covering both clubs and balls already established by the U.S. Golf Association and its rules-making counterpart for the rest of the world, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, will slow the distance gains to those that were experienced before the explosion of the last half-decade.
 
And to his credit, Finchem didn't fall back on the easy defense: that for all the distance the pros have added the last two decades, they're shooting essentially the same scores. He knows better than that.
 
A number of golf's greatest courses have already been sidelined as tournament sites because they can't be stretched another inch, and that list is only likely to grow.
 
Wiser folks have been calling for technology limits for years, but the supposedly stodgy thinkers at Augusta National decided they wouldn't sit still while the debate raged. Two years ago, they undertook the most extensive renovation in Augusta's long history.
 
'Our objective,' Johnson said at the time, 'is to keep this golf course current.'
 
That included buying a parcel of land about the size of two parking spaces from the neighboring Augusta Country Club for a cool $500,000 so the 13th tee could be moved back far enough to make driving the ball around the corner of a fairway more challenging.
 
But that isn't an option for most courses and Finchem knows only too well how many viewers the PGA Tour will lose if every tournament stop turns into a drive-and-wedge birdiepalooza. If he needs reminding of how technology can ruin a game, all he has to do is turn on a men's tennis match sometime.
 
The easiest way to solve the current problem is to test the clubs and balls of the winner -- like NASCAR does -- and a handful of other finishers chosen at random. Then sit back and wait for the excuses to roll in.
 
'This is my practice driver ...'
 
Jim Litke is the national sports colmnist for the Associated Press
 
Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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