THIS is one time the PGA Tour needs to avoid the perception of slow play.
It has been two weeks since the Sports Illustrated story that Vijay Singh spent $9,000 on products that included deer antler spray – a banned substance – telling the magazine he used the spray “every couple of hours. . . every day” and that he was “looking forward to some change in my body.”
Singh issued a statement the next day that he used the spray and was shocked to learn that it might contain a substance that is banned under the tour’s anti-doping policy.
Singh is still playing. The Tour is not talking, except to say it is looking into the matter.
In what is shaping up as a bright year in golf, this is becoming a dark cloud. Tiger Woods won at Torrey Pines. Phil Mickelson missed a 59 by a fraction of an inch when he won the Phoenix Open. The following week, every conversation among players at Pebble Beach seemed to start with: “What’s going to happen to Vijay?”
Singh met PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem at Pebble Beach – and then made his 15th consecutive cut. He is playing again this week at Riviera.
The big Fijian, a week away from turning 50, is one of the more remarkable success stories on the PGA Tour. He has three major championships, a record 22 wins in his 40s and a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But he is looked upon differently now, and not just because he is the source of jokes.
One photo circulating last week showed Singh’s face Photoshopped on to a deer. A magazine reported seeing Singh on the fairway at Spyglass Hill during a practice round with his caddie, trainer, manager – and five deer that had wandered out of the woods. Also at stake is his integrity.
It doesn’t help that Singh had to overcome allegations early in his career that he doctored his scorecard to avoid missing a cut in Indonesia. Singh, who has denied the charges, was banned by the Asian tour. It dogged him for so much of his career, even as he worked his way out of the jungle in Borneo to become No 1 in the world.
Singh hasn’t won since 2008, when he was the FedEx Cup champion with back-to-back wins in the play-offs. He has been slowed by injuries in the last four years and was clearly trying to gain an edge in his recovery with the deer antler spray and other products from a firm called Sports with Alternative to Steroids.
Singh either forgot or ignored the tour’s warning a year earlier that deer antler spray might contain an insulin-like growth hormone known as IGF-1, which has been on the list of banned substances since the drug-testing programme began in 2008. Every now and then, the tour will warn the players of a substance that could get them into trouble, which is what it did in the autumn of 2011.
Singh said he reviewed the list of ingredients on the antler spray and did not see any banned substances. That’s not being very vigilant. And it’s not much of an excuse.
If he’s spending $9,000 on products, does he not become suspicious enough to run this by the Tour? Even a change in nutrient program should be enough for a player to ask questions. One player told a story this week of getting a prescription for a new eye medicine. His first call was to the Tour to make sure it was okay. The prescription cost $10. Just as much is at stake for the integrity of the Tour.
Doug Barron is the only player who has been suspended under the anti-doping policy, which didn’t cause too much of a ripple because only the hard-core golf fans had even heard of him. Singh is a Hall of Famer. The longer this drags on, the more speculation that the Tour treats stars differently will mount.
What hurts the Tour in this case is a lack of transparency.
Finchem has decided that no news is good news when it comes to player discipline. The Tour does not disclose fines or suspensions for misconduct rather than doping. No one can say for certain that Woods has ever been fined for his on-course language, or if Mickelson was fined last year for using his mobile phone in the middle of a round to complain about too many phones among the gallery.
We know John Daly was suspended, but only because he admitted it to refute rumours he had been suspended for life (it was only six months). Players suspect at least two of their colleagues have been suspended for testing positive for recreational drugs. If true, the Tour won’t say.
Golfers are not choirboys but Finchem wants to protect the image of golf, which is one reason he refuses to publicise their indiscretions. That image is not derived exclusively from clean living, but from the very nature of the sport. It’s a convivial game, and the vast majority of the pros are respectful of that.
That’s why golf has such a good image, and is so appealing to the corporate world.
Under the anti-performance enhancing drugs policy, the Tour is required to disclose the name, confirm the violation and declare the penalty. So far, there has been silence.
Singh’s case is muddled. Yes, a player who admits to using a banned substance is the same as a player testing positive. But is there evidence that IGF-1 was in the spray that Singh was using? More than one doctor has said it’s impossible for IGF-1 to enter the blood system through a spray. And the Tour does not have a blood test, anyway.
Plus, players have the right to appeal, and the policy says a hearing must take place within 45 days.
Singh brought this mess on himself, and now is the time for him to give back to the game that has provided him with so much. Singh could eliminate this distraction by taking a leave of absence until the Tour sorts this out. The sooner the better.