Golf is scheduled to return to the Olympics at next year’s Rio Games, but according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, the drug-enforcement policies followed by the sport’s biggest tour are still a problem.
In an interview with Golf.com, David Howman, WADA’s director general, called on the PGA Tour to take the necessary steps to strengthen its “Anti-Doping Program Manual” in order to bring it into compliance with WADA’s Code.
“There are gaps in the program, and that means someone might not be tested or might not be detected,” said Howman. “If you’re not smart, you’re not going to catch the cheats.”
PGA Tour spokesman Ty Votaw defended the efficacy of the program in place and said that some WADA regulations were unnecessary for golfers and too onerous for the Tour to enforce.
“Just because it’s not WADA doesn’t mean it’s not a quality program,” said Votaw, the PGA Tour’s vice president for communications.
Votaw added that the Tour is not alone. None of the major sports leagues in the United States -- the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL -- are WADA signatories.
In October 2013, Howman said he met with PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem to discuss potential changes to the Tour’s Anti-Doping Program Manual with golf’s return to the Olympic Games approaching in 2016. Howman characterized his talk with Finchem as “helpful,” but said he was later disappointed that the Tour did not take any steps to change its testing policy.
“We were hopeful they would go same way as the European Tour, but there’s been no movement,” Howman said.
According to WADA, the European Tour already follows WADA rules and regulations, enforces WADA’s prohibited substances list and uses WADA-accredited laboratories to analyze their samples.
Howman also joined those critical of the lack of transparency in the Tour’s administration of its drug-testing program, citing the PGA Tour’s recent suspension of Bhavik Patel, a 24-year-old Web.com Tour pro, for an undisclosed performance-enhancing drug violation.
“We don’t know the substance he used and we don’t know the rationale behind the length of the sanctions,” said Howman of the Patel suspension. “It goes some of the way, but it actually creates more questions than it gives answers.”
In the event of a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs resulting in a suspension or disqualification, the PGA Tour’s policy is to “publish the name of the player, the fact that the player committed an anti-doping rule violation, and the sanction imposed.” The PGA Tour does not disclose the substance that triggered the violation under its policy, and the Tour does not reveal any sanctions taken against golfers for recreational drug use.
Only two players are known to have been suspended by the PGA Tour for violating its performance-enhancing drug policy: Patel and Doug Barron, a Tour journeyman who tested positive for testosterone and beta-blockers in 2009 and was also suspended for one year, though his suspension was lifted after his lawsuit against the Tour was settled.
Only sports that adopt the WADA Code -- the core document that seeks to standardize anti-doping policies worldwide -- can remain in the Olympic program. The International Golf Federation is the Code signatory recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the world governing body for golf responsible for funneling clean athletes to the Games. Professional leagues, like the PGA Tour, fall outside that jurisdiction, though their athletes must comply with WADA regulations when they take part in sanctioned events like the Olympics.
Beginning on May 6, 2016, and continuing for the 13 weeks leading up to the start of the Games, Olympic hopefuls on the PGA Tour will be subject to more stringent doping control administered by the International Golf Federation, including unannounced testing at any time and the collection of blood as well as urine samples.
The PGA Tour’s official policy is that players can be tested for drugs out of competition, but the Tour considers testing done at tournament sites on the Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday before the tournament begins to be “out of competition” testing.
Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson (as well as several other Tour stars) all told The New York Times in 2013 that they had never been tested away from a tournament site. The Tour, however, insists that it has conducted drug tests both on and off tournament sites.
The Tour also tests only urine, not blood. However, urine-based detection methods for human growth hormone (HGH), which some athletes use for recovery, have yet to be developed.
According to Howman, there are three major changes the PGA Tour would have to make to its program in order to comply with WADA’s Code. The PGA Tour would have to adopt WADA’s full “Prohibited List,” establish a more rigorous method for out-of-competition testing, and reform the “secret” process by which sanctions are handed out.
“We feel that the gold standard is set by our rules and they should be adhered to by those who are running anti-doping programs,” Howman said. “And if not, it’s their responsibility to say why.”
There are three categories of substances prohibited by WADA that the Tour omitted from its “Prohibited Substances and Methods List”: corticosteroids (anti-inflammatories), certain allergy and asthma medications, and, with limitations, pseudoephedrine (a decongestant).
According to Andy Levinson, the PGA Tour’s vice president for tournament administration and anti-doping, the PGA Tour did not deem these substances to be performance-enhancing for golfers, and, Levinson said, policing their use would have created an enormous administrative burden in the form of therapeutic-use exemption requests since these medications are commonly prescribed or found over the counter.
The PGA Tour has already begun the process of educating Tour players about the new testing procedures, about 18 months before the opening ceremony in Rio, but Commissioner Finchem said the Tour committed to drug testing on its own. Speaking to the media prior to the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines last month, he maintained that the PGA Tour developed its drug-testing program to demonstrate its own integrity, not because of golf’s inclusion in the Olympics.
“We went to drug testing because the perception of across the board in sports is that athletes dope,” Finchem said. “We even had questions raised about our sport. We felt that the image of our sport and our athletes is the number one asset by a big margin. And in our defense we want to be able to demonstrate that our players don't PED use and so the Olympics is really secondary.”