With decision on Vijay Singh looming, PGA Tour needs to make its drug-testing program transparent

March 9, 2013

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Any day now, the PGA Tour will announce a suspension for Vijay Singh, for his admitted use of a deer-antler spray that contains a substance that's on the Tour's list of performance-enhancing drugs. The details of this case are deeply odd, and they have been thoroughly explored elsewhere. The point is that Singh will surely be suspended for some period for his admission and the Tour will announce the relevant details.

Or not.

Really, it's all up to Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner. According to Tour's 46-page drug-policy booklet, if a player is suspended for violating the rule for performance-enhancing drugs, the Tour is obligated to announce the suspension.

But nothing in the policy requires the commissioner to suspend a player over such a violation. For any number of reasons — including, one could argue, his desire to use some choice corporate-speak to protect the brand — the commissioner could decide to keep any failed test for PEDs in a locked drawer in Ponte Vedra. If there is no suspension, there is no announcement.

What's different about the Singh case is that we all know about it. What we don't know is how many cases we don't know about. You know how the word transparency has become so popular in recent years? At PGA Tour HQ, the operative word is still secrecy.

A key word in the Tour's drug policy is "may." Over the span of the booklet's 46 pages, a reader sees repeatedly that, faced with a failed drug test, the commissioner may do this and he may do that. There's no equivalent to federal sentencing guidelines. It's an extraordinary amount of power to give one person if you are truly trying to keep drugs out of your sport. But is that the Tour's goal?

In a recent telephone interview, Ty Votaw, the Tour's executive vice president for communications and international affairs, was asked to describe the purpose of the organization's drug-testing program. The first thing he said was "to make sure we are seen as being a clean sport." His boss, Tim Finchem, made similar remarks at a press conference on Sunday at the Accenture Match Play Championship.

Votaw's response was remarkably forthright. The Tour wants the public — fans, reporters, sponsors, kids with golf dreams — to see the players on Tour as natural talents, not chemically enhanced ones. It's good for business.

But Votaw's response is also a troubling one. The fundamental purpose of any testing program should not be image. The purpose of keeping drugs out of your sport should be to protect the health of the players. To create a level playing field (a reason Votaw cited). And to send the message that you don't have to use PEDs to make it to the show. The public's faith that a sport is clean should simply be the byproduct of a rigorous, credible testing program.

You might reasonably ask, Is there such a thing as a rigorous, credible testing program? After all, look at how much trouble the cycling world had with Lance Armstrong, who for years claimed to be both the most tested athlete in the world and whistling clean to boot.

This whole subject is an ugly mess, but a relevant one. In 2016, when golf will return to the Olympics, the players who are on an ever-changing short list to make it to Rio will be subjected to testing far more stringent than the Tour's current procedure. For one thing, Olympic testing, under the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), includes blood testing, which gives labs a far more detailed picture of what an athlete is using than the urine tests the Tour now employs.

Under WADA rules, an athlete must make himself available for one hour every day for random testing, no matter where in the world he or she might be. It's intense. Whether it's working or not, who can say?

You could argue that to parse 11 words from Ty Votaw about the purpose of the Tour's drug-testing program is an exercise in semantical gymnastics. It's not. If your purpose is to try to persuade the public that your players are clean, then your goal and your news releases are far more likely to match up.

In the press conference last week, Finchem said that random testing for PEDs was instituted in 2008 "because of a growing cynicism about sports. Since that time, the cynicism has only grown more acute."

There are many people in and around the Tour who believe the idea of golfers benefitting from PEDs is far-fetched. They point to successful players who avoid the gym like it's the dentist's office.

But there's a simple and contrary argument. If the Tour players think they are getting better by spending time in the gym, and many of them do, they have an incentive to use PEDs. If the Tour players think they are getting better by beating hundreds of balls day after day on the practice tee, and many of them do, they have an incentive to use PEDs.

Performance-enhancing drugs help an athlete work harder and recover more quickly so he can go back out and do it all again. There is nothing magical about them. You can be using PEDs and be as skinny as Lance Armstrong or a bulky as Tony Mandarich. Appearances can tell you something — or nothing.

Since the Tour began its drug-testing program, there has been just one announcement of a suspension, and that was in the peculiar case of Doug Barron, a 43-year-old journeyman who has never won on Tour and never made more than $732,000 in a season.

Parts of his case are well known, and parts are not. He has said he had a clinical case of low testosterone, that he sought a therapeutic-use exemption from the Tour and that his request was denied. He continued with his treatment anyway, and he failed a drug test in 2009. He was suspended for a year. In terms of his life as a professional golfer, he has never really been heard from since.

What's less widely known is the result of Barron's suit against the Tour over his suspension, which was settled in 2010. The settlement granted him a therapeutic-use exemption for testosterone treatments when he returned to Tour golf.

Last year Barron played 15 times on the Web.com tour, the Tour's developmental circuit, and made six cuts. Web.com players are subjected to the same testing procedures as Tour players are. There is no testing on the Champions tour. Asked why the seniors aren't tested, Votaw said the process would be too expensive and that players 50 and older would have too many requests for therapeutic-use exemptions to make it practical.

"I wanted to hold out for more, but Doug was eager to get it behind him and get back to playing golf," Barron's former lawyer, Arthur Horne, said last week. "You do what your client wants you to do. We had names, big names, of players who were supposedly doing PEDs, but they were just rumors. You know, Doug was on Tour. He heard a lot of stuff. But we needed facts.

"The Tour did not want to settle this case, but in discovery we were asking for every failed drug test the Tour had ever had, and they really didn't want to give that up. That's why they settled." Horne said he could not disclose details of the settlement because of a confidentiality agreement.

This is all relevant now as the Tour examines its latest case. Singh, surely, is lawyered-up. The Tour is going slowly here because it knows where this can go with a misstep.

Votaw, a lawyer by training, took exception to a Feb. 20 story in The New York Times in which a reporter interviewed 54 players and found not one who said he had been tested away from a tournament site. (In the story, Tiger Woods said he had never been tested away from a tournament site but added he knew others who had.) Votaw pointed out, in the Times story and in subsequent interviews, that testing done at tournament sites on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays is considered out-of-competition testing by WADA. He believes the Times story implies that the Tour's testing is not rigorous.

Well, 54 players is a significant sample, and one could reasonably conclude that Tour testing is not at all rigorous. If a player knows he is only going to be tested at a tournament site, it makes it relatively easy to cycle off a PED so that it is out of his system before showing up. That undermines the whole purpose of testing.

In an interview with SI, Votaw was asked if testers ever show up at a player's home to perform a random drug test. He declined to answer the question directly. "We have in-competition testing and we have out-of-competition testing," he said, "both at tournament sites and away from tournament sites."

In his Sunday press conference, Finchem said, "We have to continue to be aggressive in this area, but thankfully our players have responded in a very positive, affirmative and energetic way so that as a consequence of what they've done to protect the sport, we haven't had too much difficulty. But it doesn't take a lot of difficulty to change the image of the sport. And so in some areas we have to redouble our efforts. And I'll speak more about that probably in a few weeks." Maybe blood testing is coming to the Tour, not just for the Olympic hopefuls but for all players.

The truth is we don't know what the players are doing to protect their sport. They're busy with their day jobs, trying to shoot lower scores while playing in events with seven-figure purses. And we don't know what the Tour is doing with its drug-test results.

What we do know is that since the start of the Tour's testing for performance-enhancing drugs in 2008, one player has been suspended. That's it. If Vijay Singh gets suspended, we're up to two. Those are two strange cases that hardly tell us a thing.

We know something else as well: As citizens of the world, and as golfers plying their trade, most Tour players abide by the applicable rules. Without rules, and without strict adherence to them, professional golf quickly falls apart, for the players and for the spectators. The Tour created a rule to outlaw PEDs. On the course, the players monitor their own play and routinely call penalties on themselves. But other players and rules officials are watching too, in order, quote, to protect the field. All that's done in the open, under the sun. To the degree it can be, drug testing needs to be done under the sun, too.

Update (March 8, 2013):
Eight days after this story was posted on Golf.com, Votaw called and wanted to make it clear that the PGA Tour did not make any payment to Barron. Horne said he could not comment further on the settlement, citing the confidentiality agreement. Barron, in a telephone interview, declined to discuss the settlement. He said he was no longer playing professional golf.