The PGA Tour: These Guys Aren’t Dopes

Let the Gary Player-lead witch hunt begin. The nine-time major champion said earlier this year that he knew for a fact that some golfers were using steroids and that one had confessed to him. Player didn’t identify the player, saying he had promised not to tell, drawing the ire of many professionals, including fellow countrymen Ernie Els and Retief Goosen (whom Player will captain in this week’s President’s Cup in Montreal). Lost in the controversy was that Player seemingly lumped the GNC-sold, legal-without-a-prescription, over-the-counter supplement creatine along with anabolic steroids and human-growth-hormone (HGH)-both illegal without a prescription-in his statement.

Flash forward to late last week. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem announced, in a conference call with the leaders of the six major golf organizations, that the PGA Tour, European Tour, LPGA Tour, U.S. Golf Association, Royal & Ancient Golf Club (R&A), Augusta National Golf Club and the PGA of America all signed off on an anti-doping policy. The policy will be coordinated by the World Golf Foundation, comprised of leaders from major golf organizations. Doping tests for professional golfers will start in 2008 under plans announced by governing bodies Thursday. However, it is still uncertain which major tournament will institute them first. There have been rumors that some golfers may use synthetic urine to pass the drug testing so they can continue using the enhancement drugs but after all, that may just be rumors. And while Finchem expects a late spring (2008) start to doping tests (i.e., there will likely not be drug testing at the Masters in Augusta next April), regulations and punishments, European Tour officials have not yet given an exact timeline. Per AP reports, “when it comes to the majors, tournament organizers are ready to follow the example of the tours that implement a week-by-week drug testing program before following on with their own anti-doping efforts.” Said Augusta’s executive director Jim Armstrong: “This is all in development, the protocols. We’ll be looking at the entire issue. We’ll be watching what the PGA and the other tours do before determining just how we’ll proceed.” Finally, Finchem said that there would be up to eight meetings over the first three months of 2008, along with a 24-hour consultation line for players, agents and fitness trainers. “We are not going to just have a player meeting and 30 players come and call it a day,” Finchem said. “We will be out sitting down with players aggressively, and we will have a lot of people involved in that process. We’re just not going to leaving anything to chance.”

Officials have released a list of 10 classes of drugs that will be banned, which range from anabolic steroids to hormones to narcotics to beta blockers. PGA Tour spokesman Ty Votaw said HGH was also on the banned list. He said the entire list of banned drugs would not be released until the tour showed it to the players. Purportedly, the list will more or less mirror that used by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), which oversees international sports and, most prominently, the Olympic Games. However, two substances from the WADA list were left off golf’s banned list because Finchem said it would cause an undue administrative burden and because golf executives do not believe those substances-glucocorticosteroids (predominantly involved in carbohydrate metabolism, and also in fat and protein metabolism and many other activities, e.g., alteration of connective tissue response to injury and inhibition of inflammatory and allergic reactions) and Beta-2-Agonists (a class of drugs used to treat asthma and other pulmonary disease states)-enhance a golfer’s performance.

According to R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, “[we] have no reason to believe that golf is anything other than a clean sport, but we’ve been supportive of a coordinated international effort in golf to test for drugs so that we can demonstrate that our sport is clean and we can keep it that way.” Most commentators and players alike echo (rightly) Dawson’s sentiments. What advantage would these substances offer the average professional golfer, anyway? Anabolic steroids (anabolic-androgenic steroids) are the synthetic derivatives of the naturally occurring male anabolic hormone, testosterone. Testosterone’s natural androgenic effects trigger the maturing of the male reproductive system in puberty, including the growth of body hair and the deepening of the voice. The hormone’s anabolic effect helps the body retain dietary protein, which aids in the development of muscles. “Although there are many types of steroids with varying degrees of anabolic and androgenic properties, it’s the anabolic property of steroids that lures athletes,” said one doctor. “[Athletes] take them to primarily increase muscle mass and strength.” While it’s arguably at least theoretically true that stronger muscles could equate to faster swing speeds and thus enhanced distance, in practice this newfound size would more probably only restrict a golfer’s range of motion, creating less coil, a decreased swing arc, and therefore far less distance.

More importantly, it’s not just the uber-fit like Tiger who hit the ball 300 plus yards. There’s John Daly (arguably one of the most unfit people on the planet, let alone in the sport). And then there’s wiry guys like Charles Howell III, who weigh 150 pounds only after a massive steak dinner, but still create gargantuan swing speeds and effortlessly hit the ball a mile. What’s not arguable is that steroids would have no effect on by far the most important element of golf-the short game. There are literally hundreds of thousands of players, pro and amateur alike, who hit the ball 300 yards and send iron shots soaring towards targets like laser beams. But what separates the mediocre from the good from the great players (or in Tiger’s case, the great from the God-like) is the ability to get the ball up and down from off the green, and moreover, the ability to putt under pressure consistently. Believe it or not, all the extra water weight and lean muscle mass in the world will not make that left-to-right, down-grain 5-footer for a million dollars any easier. But things like beta-blockers (one of the classes of drugs that will be banned) might. Beta-blockers work by blocking the action of noradrenaline at special sites (receptors) in arteries and the heart muscle. Noradrenaline is a chemical that transmits messages between nerves and muscles, or between one set of nerves and another. By blocking its action, beta-blockers can cause arteries to widen and can slow the action of the heart and decrease its force of contraction. This results in a fall in blood pressure and reduced work by the heart. In short, if a player finds his blood pressure rising while standing over a pressure putt, beta blockers might help decrease those unwanted palpitations. Goodbye “yips.”

What will be most interesting is to see how the Tour players’ advisory board (consisting of nine Tour professionals) responds to the proposed testing measures. As Golfweek’s Rex Hoggard points out, “if ever there was a need for a powerful players’ voice [in golf] it is now. It’s not that a players union should fight an anti-doping policy, but considering the fallout that would surely come from a positive test and the vagaries of a chemically-enhanced world, it is hard to argue against the need for player protections.” And given the sometimes unwarranted attention the media has shed on certain athletes who are merely suspected of illicit or impermissible drug use, but have not been proven or found guilty by either a court of law or by formal arbitration, and moreover have not been given a fair-chance to explain the alleged discrepancy, “it is not farfetched,” Hoddard writes, “to think that a player could inadvertently end up on the wrong end of a ‘false positive’ sample.” This is troubling for players’ agents as well, who would likely see at least some sponsors shun or prematurely cut loose a perceived “cheater.” Once a player’s character is tarnished, it often is irrecoverable-regardless of circumstance. Rightly or wrongly, society is quick to draw conclusions. Just ask Gary Player (but don’t expect any names from him).

— Jason G. Wulterkens

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