COMMENTARY | Drug testing in golf is a joke.
No, not the notion of it. That's completely kosher. However, the PGA Tour's drug-testing policy -- adopted and enacted five years ago this July -- does not go far enough to test for performance-enhancing drugs.
Greg Norman suggested the same thing this week, saying the PGA Tour must go further to ensure its players are indeed good because of their raw talent, not thanks to a needle injected here and there.
"You only have to look at what happened to Vijay Singh just recently to know the drugs issue is there," Norman told The Australian newspaper.
Singh, for his part, admitted to Sports Illustrated in a Jan. 28 piece that he had taken a substance known as deer-antler spray, which purportedly contains a growth hormone, called IGF-1, banned under the PGA Tour's anti-doping program. For three months, no decision came from the PGA Tour on what punishment Singh should suffer for a tacit admission of breaking the rules.
Could it be a suspension? A fine?
On Tuesday, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem laid down the law on Singh. Well, he was supposed to anyway. Instead, Singh was determined to not have violated the anti-doping program, allowing the 50-year-old Fijian to keep on playing as though nothing happened.
How could this be? After consulting with the World Anti-Doping Agency, whose guidelines served as the basis for the PGA Tour's policy, it was determined Singh's admission to using the deer-antler spray was not enough alone to sanction him.
WADA told the PGA Tour it does not consider deer-antler spray a banned substance and that only a positive (blood) test for IGF-1 should result in penalties. Ingesting any form of IGF-1 orally would not produce a positive test anyhow; it needs to be injected.
To summarize: Singh admitted to breaking the rules, but the rules were then retroactively changed to allow the three-time major winner to escape penalty because the PGA Tour does not conduct the kind of testing required to prove if Singh really did break the rules.
QED, Norman had it right.
If the PGA Tour did conduct blood tests on its players, rather than the urine samples it currently does (predominantly at tournament site), there is a better chance Singh would have been caught. Maybe he is suspended. Then again, under the policy the commissioner can choose to not suspend a player who has violated the policy. It's the performance-enhancing-drugs equivalent of Tiger Woods and Rule 33-7 from the Masters.
The PGA Tour must do several things in the wake of this protracted incident.
First, it has to take up Norman's suggestion that blood testing be the standard for its anti-doping program. What difference in discomfort is there in drawing blood than collecting urine? If it means the PGA Tour can actually test for all of the substances it says are banned, very little.
Second, it must test more often, away from tournament site, when players are not competing. In a February 2013 New York Times piece, Woods said he has never been tested off-site by the PGA Tour. The same claim was made by the likes of Rory McIlroy and former world No. 1 Luke Donald. With top stars taking lengthy breaks during the season to recharge for important stretches, an occasional knock at the door from a drug tester would improve the program's perceived credibility.
Finally, it has to appoint an independent arbiter to manage the program -- including doling out penalties -- and remove commissioner Finchem from the role. Golf's anti-doping program deserves an ombudsman (no pun intended) that is not working for the players, but rather to uphold the game's noble reputation.
In almost five years, the PGA Tour's anti-doping program has identified a single player, Doug Barron, with a positive test and followed through with an announced suspension. Ultimately, Barron's case was adjudicated to his satisfaction outside of the program's guise.
Basically, the anti-doping scorecard reads: five years, no positive tests. That means one of two things: (1) golfers are pristine and have no temptation to take a banned substance, or (2) some cheaters have been allowed to slide. It's likely the latter, even if somewhat unwittingly.
Heck, if Tiger Woods -- who said "rules are rules" -- can't remember the regulations around a simple drop, how likely is it that Vijay Singh isn't the only player to accidentally ingest a substance that might help him make a few more bucks every week?
Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel.
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- Vijay Singh
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