A player has been caught, but is the PGA Tour’s drug-testing program working?

November 4, 2009

For the first time, the PGA Tour has suspended a player for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. We would likely be more familiar with the drug, had the Tour bothered to identify it, than the player, who the Tour identified as Doug Barron, a 40-year-old journeyman who played 17 Nationwide tour events in 2008, earning $33,446. This year he played four Nationwide events and one Tour event.

OK, he’s obscure. But now that he’s been suspended for a year, you should have faith that the Tour’s drug testing works, right?


The Tour is owned by the players. The players, knowing that a drug scandal would sully golf’s image and therefore cost it money, were reluctant to adopt a drug policy. The policy they settled on, a very readable and public 45-page document in the players’ handbook, makes it seem that the Tour is serious about keeping performance-enhancing drugs out of golf. Maybe it is. The health hazards of using steroids and other PEDs are real and scary.

But the main purpose of the policy is to give the impression that Tour golfers are as pure as the first green before the first group of the day plays through.

In other words, the policy is for us, not the players, even though they’re the ones who have to endure the indignity of urinating in a cup in front of the tester whenever they are selected for a random sample.

That’s what Dr. Charles Yesalis said when the testing program was first announced. Yesalis, a Penn State professor who has devoted his professional life to the study of drugs in sports, was once a leading advocate for testing. In more recent years he’s concluded that testing urine, at least for now, gives nothing but the false sense that we know what athletes are putting in their bodies. With any kind of informed medical advice, athletes can take masking agents or cycle on and off drugs when they’re not playing. After Manny Ramirez incurred a 50-game suspension for failing a drug test, one ballplayer said, “Do you know what kind of idiot you have to be to flunk that test?” Tour players are not idiots.

The initial response of some Tour players to Barron’s suspension was disbelief. The Associated Press quoted several players who were in Shanghai for the HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championship event. Rod Pampling said: “Doug Barron? Look at the man.” Barron’s chubby. Jerry Kelly wondered if Barron’s drug use was related to other medical issues: “I mean, this guy had health problems.” Pat Perez said, “It’s not like it’s a top-20 player who was trying to take steroids to catch Tiger.”

They’re quick-hit quotes, but they also show how much misunderstanding, willful or not, there is about PEDs. Tiger Woods has said the same sort of thing as Pampling, that golf couldn’t have a steroid problem because you don’t see guys the size of NFL linemen playing the Tour. That, at best, is naive. First off, there are players built like lightweight boxers. But more to the point, Yesalis or any other expert will tell you: you can have any physique you want using PEDs. They don’t make you stronger. They let you recover more quickly from workouts so that you can work out more.

Kelly’s comment — about extenuating medical circumstances — is usually what athletes say when they’re caught. In this case, Barron didn’t say it himself; he only said he was not trying to “gain an unfair competitive advantage or enhance my performance while on tour.” But murky medical circumstances are almost never to blame for a positive test. The Tour gives a player 45 days to make a case for why a test result is wrong before announcing a suspension. The Tour is not looking to expose itself to lawsuits and publicity. If there were plausible extenuating medical circumstances, we would never have heard about this case. The fact is, Barron used a banned substance. You can be sure that others are as well; they’re just better at masking it.

Perez further downplayed Barron’s case, saying: “In a way, it matters. And in a way, it doesn’t. He’s not really on the PGA Tour.” But his lack of Tour status makes his case matter even more. Wherever there is desperation, there is temptation — even in golf. In this game, everybody is desperate to catch somebody, or something, whether it’s status on the Nationwide tour or the PGA Tour, or a spot in the top 50 and the World Golf Championships. Desperation abounds. It’s one of the reasons we’re drawn to the sport. It’s dog-eat-dog, with nice manners.

The real question is not whether golfers are using PEDs. They are, and other golfers will be sloppy enough to get caught in the years to come. The real question is whether we care.