This is part of a series of great golf arguments. We’ve asked Farrell Evans and Michael Bamberger to debate whether or not the Tour should test for steroids. After reading their arguments, tell us what you think in our forum.
Is golf a sport or a game? You’ve heard this question before. As a golfer, you’ve heard it from your buddies every time John Daly trudges the fairways with his beer belly, Diet Coke and cigarettes. How is he an athlete? What makes him an athlete beyond the most rudimentary definition of the word — someone who competes in sports? As one of my friends equipped with the jargon of postmodern studies might say: “How do we know that we know who is an athlete? How does anybody know anything?”
Well, at least for now, the professional golfing establishment knows what it is by the company that it keeps. It has chosen to follow the other major sports with an anti-doping policy that will begin in 2008.
“But for the problems in other sports, I doubt we would be at this point,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said last month. “Certainly, the problems in other sports have created a growing perception among fans that athletes … utilize substances that in other sports are banned.”
From a sports marketing standpoint, this allows golf to occupy the stage with and claim a modicum of respect from more high-profile sports such as football, baseball and soccer, and to advance the game’s Olympic aspirations. But this effort to tap into the collective psyche of sports fans is the lamest example of the game trying too hard to fit in.
Yes, it’s plausible that a golfer could train more intensely and experience faster recovery and longer drives with the help of anabolic steroids. But I believe golf’s caretakers should only have gotten into the anti-doping business once they could demonstrate that it was a problem in their sport. Golf can’t claim a single case of a player ever testing positive for steroids, although the Italian golfer Alessandro Pissilli was suspended by the Italian Golf Federation this year after testing positive for the diuretic Finasteride. He claimed he was taking the drug for a prostate problem, but it can also mask steroid use.
In the past year, Gary Player claimed that he knew of golfers who had used banned substances, and Tiger Woods said that an anti-doping program would be a good thing for golf, but we still lack hard proof that golfers are using drugs. That’s why it seems clear that golf’s drug testing policies are more about creating buzz than catching cheats.
In the end, I think Finchem, the PGA Tour and the international golf cognoscenti could find a better way to maintain the integrity of their sport without succumbing to trends in order to make a better connection with an increasingly cynical fan base. Golf has survived and thrived by being different from other sports, a bastion of pastoral etiquette and sportsmanship mixed with intense competition. The new doping policy allows the sport to keep pace with its modern sports contemporaries, but not everything about modernity suits golf.
The truth is, testing breeds suspicion. Fans that once appreciated a game that was the purest form of sport will now wonder about the integrity of the players. After all, why test if there’s nothing to be concerned about? Those same fans will no longer look at Tiger Woods as an elite athlete, the anti-John Daly, but will now peer through all of his glory for a hint that he is a cheater. That’s a lot to give up in the name of keeping up with the (Marion) Joneses. It’s a game unbecoming of this sport.