At a time when Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson are among the most revered and highly compensated athletes in the world, it’s easy to forget that professional golf was once considered the province of rogues and ruffians, its reputation shadowy enough that in the late 1950s Jack Nicklaus seriously considered remaining an amateur.
Vijay Singh’s admission to Sports Illustrated that he used deer antler spray, which contains IGF-1, an insulinlike growth factor that is on the PGA Tour’s list of prohibited substances, affords the tour a wide-open window to let in transparency and public accountability. These are the last elements needed in its evolution from a profession of hustlers to a respected world player.
Nicklaus helped usher golf into the mainstream with his family-man gravitas and 18 major titles. Along came Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman, who played major roles in expanding golf on the global stage. Woods’s arrival led to bulked-up tour purses — from an average of $1.47 million in 1996 to $6.20 million last year — and the repositioning of golf as a sport cool enough to attract bona fide athletes.
And yet, the sport continues to be controlled by groups like the United States Golf Association, the R&A and the PGA Tour that administer the rules as if operating in a smoke-filled back room.
Consider the USGA and the R&A, which allowed golfers to use the anchored putting stroke for over four decades without a dissenting word. Then, after three players using the style won majors in the span of two years, they acted to ban it, leaving a trail of confused golfers.
Unlike the major professional sports leagues and even the men’s and women’s professional tennis tours, the PGA Tour has steadfastly refused to announce fines or suspensions. Tour officials do not publicly acknowledge discipline meted out for acts like throwing a club into the gallery, blowing off a mandatory players meeting, getting into an on-course altercation with another player or walking off the course without finishing a round.
Their reasoning is that in the vast majority of cases few people know about the original transgression, so why broadcast it to the masses? The exception is doping offenses, but since the PGA Tour initiated its drug testing policy in 2009, it has ensnared only the journeyman golfer Doug Barron, who tested positive for synthetic testosterone that year.
In the summer of 2011, tour officials warned players about using Ultimate Spray, made of deer antler velvet, and advised Mark Calcavecchia, a one-time major winner, to stop endorsing the product. A year and a half later, Singh, a three-time major winner and former world No. 1 with 34 tour victories, is on the record saying he used deer antler spray “every couple of hours.”
“I’m looking forward to some changes in my body,” said Singh, a 49-year-old known for his maniacal fitness regimen, in Sports Illustrated. “It’s really hard to feel the difference if you’re only doing it for a couple of months.”
In a statement released Wednesday, Singh, who is entered in this week’s Waste Management Open, confirmed that he used deer antler spray but said that “at no time was I aware that it may contain a substance that is banned under the PGA Tour anti-doping policy.”
“In fact, when I first received the product, I reviewed the list of ingredients and did not see any prohibited substances,” he said. “I am absolutely shocked that deer antler spray may contain a banned substance and am angry that I have put myself in this position.”
The tour’s anti-doping manual, which includes IGF-1 under the heading “Peptide hormones, growth factors and related substances,” makes plain that ignorance is not a defence. It says, “It does not matter whether you unintentionally or unknowingly used a prohibited substance.” It also states, “It is each player’s personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance enters his body.”
The tour said it had begun a review process, per its anti-doping policy. But if Singh does not end up with a suspension, what message will that send about a sport that, for integrity’s sake, expects players to call infractions on themselves? A player committing a first-time anti-doping rule violation under the program is subject to up to a one-year suspension and can be fined up to $500,000.
With its first major doping imbroglio, golf has officially reached the sporting big time. The question is, will its response befit a sport of its stature?
©2013 The New York Times