By Skip Bayless
Page 2

Alas, it is once again time for my annual rites of spring.

The first is wistfully watching what used to be the greatest drama in sports, my beloved Masters, which is being turned into just another long, boring U.S. Open venue.

The second is angrily shelling out $400 or $500 for a new driver.

Make that my wrongs of spring.

Tiger Woods
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
Wanna drive it as far as Tiger? Better keep picking up new clubs.

My beloved golf has sold out to the companies that are making fortunes off the nuclear clubs and rocket balls we're forced to buy if we want to keep up with the Joneses off the tee, on the scorecard and in the 19th Hole.

You know, the clubs and balls that Tiger and Phil and other top pros are paid millions to endorse. The ones that prey upon man's greatest weakness, his macho ego. The ones that guarantee you'll soon be powering your tee shots 30 yards past your buddies' and reaching unreachable par-5s in two.

Yes, men will envy you and women will find you irresistible if you launch the plutonium-filled Ozone Piercer ball with the XXL-9000 FireBreather driver, made with molten lava laced with nitro and featuring a radar-lock device that ensures every shot will be struck with the exact center of the largest face this side of Mount Rushmore.

This is golf's version of steroids and Viagra.

And if I want to compete, I have no choice but to buy, buy, buy, because golf can't (or won't) regulate its equipment and because there seems to be no scientific limit to how far a golf ball can be made to travel.

Which brings us back to what used to be my favorite place in the world, Augusta National, whose members struggle to regulate their macho ego. They don't want their Eden of a course shamed by the long-ball onslaught. They don't trust that, with help from wind and rain and Sunday pressure, Augusta National could defend itself without added length.

They should, because it could.

But they fear their hallowed event will be turned into another BellSouth Open, with Phil Mickelson driving par-4s on the fly with one of the two breakthrough Callaway drivers he carries -- his "draw" driver -- and shooting 28 under par. So Augusta National keeps moving back its tees until -- congrats, gents -- it has a 505-yard par-4, No. 11.

In a year or two, Tiger and Phil will be teeing off from the vacant lot where Martha Burke once protested across Washington Road.

But maybe the green jackets who run Augusta National should have listened to Jack Nicklaus 20 years ago. He warned us all. He said the only way to maintain sanity in golf-course design was to regulate the ball, not the club.

Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson says that option is still being explored. And the Masters is certainly the one tournament that could dictate that every invitee play a standardized ball. After all, it is their private party.

On the first tee, they could hand each pro a dozen dialed-down balls with Masters logos and say, "Good luck."

They could make sure the longest hitters could send these balls no more than 280 yards. And that certainly would keep their rare emerald of a course from being outmoded as a major championship venue the way, say, rare little antique Merion has been.

But, we're told, it isn't that simple.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews hired an actual rocket scientist, Dr. Steve Otto, who worked for NASA, to research and design a standardized ball for the European tour. He recently told the Guardian Newspapers: "We wanted to see if there was a magic ball out there. We looked at a bigger ball and a lighter ball. We looked at balls made from different rubbers and with different dimple patterns.

"But the ball that was 10 percent shorter for one player was 20 percent shorter for another … the problem is there is no simple definition of a magic ball."

Rubbish. The goal here shouldn't be to keep Tiger from dominating, but to keep courses from running out of real estate. If Tiger still can win hitting it 280 to most players' 260, bully for him and for golf.

But listen to what Dr. Otto said of his NASA job and golf-equipment design: "Actually, they really aren't that different. It used to be that metals like titanium were evolved for the aircraft industry. Nowadays, the really new metals are being evolved for the golf industry."

Translation: Despite the 460 cc size limit and the "spring-like effect" limit for driver heads, the sky is literally the limit for how much farther inventors can make unregulated balls travel.

Bottom line: The sky's the limit for equipment makers' bottom lines.

Yes, money is the root of all the new trees Augusta National has had to plant to combat the long-ball assault. So much money is being made -- by manufacturers, by endorsing pros, by networks and magazines that run their onslaught of ads -- that company power brokers no doubt have influenced buddies who are members at Augusta National to, uh, avoid regulating balls.

Nike wants to be able to tell its customers that Tiger won The Masters with Nike's ball, not Augusta National's.

Phil Mickelson
AP Photo/Rob Carr
Wouldn't it be fun to watch Mickelson and co. playing with the same type of ball at Augusta?

And you still have to wonder just how much the PGA tour can -- or wants to -- police the "spring-like effect" of new driver faces. It's like designer steroids that can beat the tests. It's like NASCAR, with crew chiefs and mechanics pushing car and engine designs just beyond the legal limits.

Nike has a rocket scientist named Rock Ishii who constantly invents new balls and drivers for Tiger. That's why Tom Pernice Jr. asked for Tiger's driver to be checked by officials last year -- and why Vijay Singh recently asked for Phil Mickelson's to be tested. You can't know for sure who's getting away with what.

But who really pays? Guys like me.

As a kid, I never could have imagined that you'd ever be able to buy a golf game. I was always taught, "It's the swing, not the club." Woods were actually made of wood, and one did not give you an advantage over another. You chose your driver by how it fit your eye and felt on contact, and you stuck with it for years.

But if you couldn't swing it correctly and make contact on its nickel-sized sweet spot, you were making bogeys.

But now you can buy clubs that will take 10 strokes off your score. Driver faces the size of Italy have sweet spots from heel to toe. Hybrid clubs -- woods that act like irons -- have rendered 5-, 4-, 3-, 2- and 1-irons obsolete for just about anyone with a double-digit handicap.

Golf is so much more fun, you say? It used to be much more fun when you played well because it was so much harder.

And by next spring, slugger, your hot new club will be outdated. Last summer, I tried sticking with my year-old Titleist driver. Maybe it was all in my head -- or my swing -- but buddies with Barkley swings were blowing tee shots 30 yards past me with their new rocket launchers.

So now I'm poring over the ads for new drivers.

MacGregor's MACTEC NVG2 boasts "no face welds. The entire face is the sweet spot … Quadra Tungsten weighting … Fujikura Quadra Action shaft."


Then there's the TaylorMade's r7 425 with the revolutionary Movable Weight Technology, which makes it "bigger and more powerful than its predecessor."

That's what they all say.

And of course, there's Nike's SasQuatch, whose "PowerBow technology" creates "a plunging center of gravity that's the deepest in the game, Max Back CG." This driver has "the highest Moment of Inertia in golf," which "gives you the highest speed and distance even if your mishits are off the toe or the heel. It doesn't care. It's still going to crush your ball. It's the reason Tiger is switching to the SQ."

No wonder Tiger is so good.

I'm lost.

And so is my Masters.

Now, the back-nine par-5s, 13 and 15, are so long and difficult that much of Sunday's high-risk, high-reward suspense has been eliminated. Instead of being able to charge by making eagles -- or drown with bogeys -- leaders are forced to play it safer with Open-style pars or long-putt birdies.

As Nick Price told the Washington Post: "They've got to be careful because Sunday afternoon has always been such great theater and nobody wants to lose that."

Thank goodness no one has yet invented a Rodney Dangerfield memorial "Caddyshack" putter that makes putts for you.

But somebody will.

And I'll buy one.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.