Could golf be the next sport to face a series of drug scandals?

Monday December 17th, 2007
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem.
Gregory Smith/AP

NEW YORK — Nobody does scandal like baseball. Baseball's got it all: sex scandals, drug scandals, gambling scandals, cheating scandals. Many brawls. Guys who do not pay their taxes. No wonder Pete Rose, for a singles hitter, is so famous. Yes, he's the Hit King, but the Scandal King, too.

It's all good. When Commissioner Bud Selig was whisked away after his Thursday afternoon say-nothing press conference at the old Waldorf Astoria, and scores of reporters reached for their cell-phones to call their bosses, it seemed like the old days: Bart Giamatti banishing Pete Rose in '89; Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner, doing the same to Shoeless Joe and his fellow Black Sox after the 1919 World Series. If you're inside these baseball scandals-du-jour, they're torturous. For the rest of us, they're part of the fun.

Golf has no idea. To have scandals like this you have to have intense scrutiny, which is rooted in rabid fan attachment, and golf just doesn't have that. Tiger Woods will make billions and do a world of good with his foundation, but he will never be a beloved sports figure in the tradition of Henry Aaron or Babe Ruth. He's a golfer. Less so than it used to be, but it's still a game on the fringes.

The game's not in our national vein. Baseball, despite the rise of football and car racing and golf, is. From a cultural standpoint, it's still the national pastime. Look at our movies, TV shows, books. The New York papers. Hemingway gave a nod to "the great DiMaggio," no first name necessary. He would never have typed "the great Hogan."

Fay Vincent, Selig's predecessor, said Friday morning that baseball will take no long-term hit from the steroids scandal, for two reasons. Baseball loves its past, but it's the game's future that occupies most fans. Sure, 20 Yankees, current and former, were named in the Mitchell Report. But what most Yankee fans really want to know is whether Steinbrenner & Sons will sign Johan Santana. Plus there's this: there was nothing close to shocking in the Mitchell report. We've seen those bodies change and defy aging before our eyes. The names, nearly all of them, have been mentioned in news stories over and over. Baseball pays lip service to being transparent. What it really has is a long season and a lot of talk to fill the downtime and reporters who file every day, early and often.

Golf is unprepared for its first big scandal, and maybe it will never come. For some years, Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner, made the argument that golfers, generally good about playing by the rules, would not use performance-enhancing drugs. Therefore, testing was not needed. Many steroid experts said his position was naive in the extreme, and shortly after Tiger Woods called for testing, a program was finally announced. But nobody with half a brain is going to flunk these urine tests. There are agents the drug users can ingest that will mask steroid use.

Plus, there's no urine test to date that detects the use of human growth hormone, and yes, golfers would have incentive to use HGH. (Big is good. Look at the money list.) Also, could you imagine a PGA Tour player dumb enough to write a personal check to buy illegal drugs? Well, actually, yes — but hardly enough to fill out an eightsome.

It's also easier to keep a secret on the PGA Tour, now more than ever. The players are lone wolves, more so all the time. They travel privately, and fans are not in their faces or their lives, and neither are reporters.

The testing in golf may do more harm than good, which is not the fault of the Tour or its golfers. It will likely give the impression that the sport is drug free or very close to it, and help push Gary Player's comments at the British Open into the background, where they don't belong.

The real goal should be to make the sport truly drug free so that players, and future players, don't feel they have to do unnatural things, and medically risky things, to their bodies in order to compete. Unfortunately, you have to test blood to know what's really in an athlete. As unseemly as it sounds for a sport that prizes civility, that day is coming. In the meantime, the golfers want to know, "Will somebody actually watch me urinate in a plastic cup?" The answer is yes. At least, that's how it's supposed to work. The whole thing is degrading.

"This isn't just an issue for the golf commissioner and the other sports commissioners," Fay Vincent said. "It's a national, and an international, issue. Some day will there be implants in the retina that give us superior vision? Will the scientists and the chemists make our athletes? Sport is on the line here."

Unless, of course, it's not. Maybe ballplayers using peformance-enhancing "substances," as Selig called them in his press conference, isn't much different from actors extending their careers with surgical nips and tucks and jazz singers finding inspiration with dope.

Donald Trump, the budding golf impresario who would own a baseball team in a New York minute if he thought he could make money at it, said a while back, "Do you care if these ballplayers are using steroids? I do not. I just want to see them hit home runs." Trump has a knack for saying what others are thinking, which may explain why baseball set attendance records in 2007, steroid scandal and all.

For golf fans, the question is really the same. It's the answer that makes all the difference. When a professional golfer clocks a drive 360 yards and straight, it's an awesome sight, right? But would you find it less awesome if you suspected the golfer was juiced?

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