Ready. Aim. Swing.

One of the more intriguing questions so early in this new year is the social impact of the decision by historic arms maker Smith & Wesson to manufacture golf clubs. It may be a protective diversity deal, like cigarette makers adding a beer brewery. Business skeptics foresee a titanic $1.3-billion struggle over clubs in a market where finicky players wearing hats with no tops seem more impressed by product performance than brand names. Golf clubs and guns do have striking similarities. Both are forged. Both can be weapons. Both involve dispatching a small projectile rapidly toward a target where it enters -- or makes -- a hole. And both items have at times been thrown into nearby lakes.

This simple business decision could completely change a sedate game that requires an appointment for a long walk on grass. Who gets the best start times -- the first caller or someone known to use a snub-nosed sand wedge? Ponder the possibilities of golfers in shorts striding down gravel paths after a depressing bogey, packing Smith & Wessons. Will anyone argue about who tees up first?

Golf has tradition and decaying protocols that require, for instance, slower players inviting faster players from behind to play through. But who gets to play through -- a .44-magnum three-wood or a titanium J-frame, .38-caliber iron? And who'd be foolish enough to dispute a Smith & Wesson user's uncounted mulligans? Remember, humans hit double bogeys, clubs don't.

A golf course arms race has pluses. Safety is one. Golf clubs are less likely than guns to go off during cleaning. Freed from the mannerly constraints of deferring to fellow players over, say, the farthest lie, reality TV golf could exploit the commercial and ratings potential of unpredictable confrontations at the eighth green. "Tonight at 8, Survivor Golf: Sudden Death Shootouts Turn Fairway Foursomes Fatal. Deadlier than Paintball -- and Better Dressed."

Other questions remain: Should we require registration of Smith & Wesson clubs? Golf club locks? Will there be cheap Saturday morning specials? Will they add telescopic sights for par fives? What were Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson's handicaps in 1852? (Answer: Whatever they wanted.) And will women armed with Smith & Wessons finally be accepted at Augusta?

Meanwhile, a TV ad idea for Smith & Wesson clubs: Camera pulls back from a golf ball on a tee, waiting. And waiting. Suddenly, a driver swings through and, to the thunderous blast of a .357 magnum, launches the ball out of sight. Camera continues pulling back to reveal the golfer: Dirty Harry. He says, "Smith & Wesson golf clubs make my day."

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