John Huggan: Clean strikers of the ball

DON’T be fooled. Long before the emergence of performance-enhancing pharmaceutical products forever scarred the sporting landscape, the relationship between golfers and drugs was already well established.

But don’t panic either. Since long before the recent stooshie over former Masters and USPGA champion Vijay Singh and the apparently stimulating properties of something called deer antler spray, the feelgood and supposedly calming properties of alcohol and nicotine made them the widespread drugs of choice.

Down the years, many of the game’s leading exponents have surreptitiously or publicly abused either or both. As far back as the 1870s, four-times Open champion Young Tom Morris drank himself into an early grave. Half a century later, the game’s greatest-ever amateur, Bobby Jones, routinely indulged in a nip or five of corn whiskey before taking to the links. Post-war, the outwardly stoic Ben Hogan, a terminal yipper on the greens, betrayed the extent of his inner turmoil by sucking furiously on a seemingly never-ending stream of cigarettes. The likes of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer all enjoyed a fag too, before political correctness proved stronger than their addictions. Tom Watson and Brian Barnes both had well-documented problems with alcohol, as has, infamously, John Daly.

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Still, none of the above is illegal or, at least in the minds of the authorities that administer such things, going to make golfers hit longer tee-shots or hole more putts. Which is a fair point. Generally speaking, the benefits of nicotine and alcohol are more psychological than physical. Which is a big part of why, for long enough, the game as a whole turned a Nelsonian eye to the darker deeds of its more celebrated participants. Complacency was rife. “Don’t be ridiculous,” was the accepted mantra. “There is no drug that can first help a player hit a 350-yard drive then, minutes later, loft a delicate pitch over a bunker.”

Check that. Complacency continues to be commonplace. At least according to one source with close ties to the European Tour, “maybe 20-30 players have taken or are taking something that is on the banned list”. If true, that is a startling claim, one that clearly raises questions over the frequency and legitimacy of testing.

That procedure, incidentally, is one of daily and random selection, the relevant players notified at the end of their rounds that they are required to urinate into a cup while the tester watches.

“It’s not much fun,” says former Open champion Paul Lawrie, who has “never” seen evidence of illicit drug use during his 20-year pro career and holds the “distinction” of being the first-ever player to be tested in a European Tour event. “Especially when, as once happened to me, you have visited the toilet just before playing the 18th hole. It took me 90 minutes to provide enough for a sample.”

But, however inconvenient, the fact that testing is taking place at all has to be positive. Had it not been for the game’s imminent participation in the 2016 Olympics, it is more than likely that golf would have continued down its path of convenient ignorance. Certainly, before the IOC came calling, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem – the most powerful figure in professional golf – was openly dismissive of even the possibility of a problem. That attitude, of course, was naïve in the extreme, at least in the area of social drug use. The notion that at least a few of the very rich young men populating the world’s tours are not indulging is both nonsensical and stunningly unrealistic. Indeed, as long ago as the mid-1980s, your correspondent can recall a social occasion in London at which two prominent members of the European Tour were puffing away quite happily on what is euphemistically labelled “wacky baccy”.

It is surely safe to assume that little has changed in that regard, especially when players are suspiciously absent from the game for prolonged periods – the PGA Tour does not announce suspensions – as has more than once been the case in just the last couple of seasons.

As ever, there is also a case for the defence. Some contend that what Tour members do when not competing is their own business, especially when, say, smoking the odd joint or two isn’t going to either hurt or enhance their scores. What happens off Tour should stay off Tour say the apologists, citing the impossible-to-dispute fact that we live in the real world, not some mythical paradise where even “no harm-no foul” wrongdoing is unheard of.

Still, for all the conflicting arguments, Finchem appears confused as to how he should handle the apparently growing problem of performance-enhancing drugs. Back in June 2008, wee Timmy could hardly wait to punish journeyman Doug Barron, who tested positive for beta-blockers at the Memphis Classic. What wasn’t made clear at the time was that Barron had been prescribed said medication by his doctor as part of treatment for low testosterone and had duly informed the tour of that fact. Initially banned for a year, Barron was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, forcing the Tour into a humiliating climbdown.

Contrast that draconian and unfeeling attitude with the treatment of Singh. This past week the resident of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida – also the home to the PGA Tour – competed in the AT&A Pro-am, only days after openly admitting his prolonged use of a banned substance, one not prescribed by his doctor as treatment for any medical condition. Clearly, in Finchem’s world, there are rules for relative unknowns like Barron and rules for three-times major champions who are members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. At the very least, Singh should have taken a leave of absence from competitive golf until this matter was sorted out.

Still, whatever the details of individual cases, it is clear that times have changed, especially at the sharp end of the professional game. Those looking for an edge are more likely to satisfy their needs in Boots rather than bars. And it isn’t hard to see why. While the ability to hit long drives has always brought with it a commensurate advantage – as it should – the benefit extra yardage brings is today so disproportionate (yet another detrimental side-effect of a ball that goes too far when struck by a driver with a head the size of a frying pan) that the temptation to cheat the system has never been greater.

Which is not to say that ingesting any of the drugs on the banned list will automatically lead to the making of better swings or the hitting of better shots. They won’t.

But what they do provide is an increased level of stamina and/or a shorter period of recovery that allows players to stand on the range and hit balls longer than ever before. Given that fact, some have clearly decided that the potential benefits outweigh the risk of discovery. Ever more vigilance is required.

And knocking 50 yards off the ball wouldn’t hurt either.

‘I’d say there are ten guys taking something. I might be out. It might be a hell of a lot more’

Although only one player, Doug Barron, has been suspended for failing a test there have been persistent claims that the use of performance-enhancing drugs has been a dirty secret that golf did not face up to.

As far back as 2007, Gary Player claimed he was aware of golfers who were using banned substances to boost their game and demanded random testing.

“I know for a fact that some golfers are doing it,” said the South African, who won nine majors in his career.

“I would say there are ten guys taking something. I might be way out. It’s definitely not going to be lower, it might be a hell of a lot more.”

Player, now 77, said two players had told him personally they took drugs. In contrast to sports such as athletics and cycling, which continues to be damaged by the fallout from various scandals and Lance Armstrong’s confession that he doped to win seven Tours de France, golf has a clean reputation.

But that can change quickly, as last week’s revelations in Australia showed. A year-long investigation by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) found that, while the nation had prided itself on its talent development and coaching programmes, the use of banned drugs was “widespread”.

The ACC said scientists, coaches and support staff were involved in the provision of drugs across multiple sporting codes, without naming any individuals.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the findings were “shocking and will disgust Australian sports fans”. The president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, John Fahey, described them as “alarming” but not a surprise.

Golf’s European Tour currently issues its members with an “anti-doping advice card” and has a 61-page “anti-doping handbook” setting out its policies and procedures. It advises on which drugs are banned, how tests are carried out and potential disciplinary action and punishments. These include disqualification and loss of results points and prize money, suspension and a fine of up to £250,000. Any anti-doping tribunal findings would also be published, unless the Tour opted not to in the case of “illicit or recreational drugs”.

There is also a section on obtaining the proper medical exemption for “therapeutic use” of otherwise banned drugs. The handbook warns golfers of the potential loss of earnings and sponsors if they are caught doping and states: “Doping is a major public offence. Whether or not you receive a sanction, the press and public will not understand or care what drugs you took. All they will see is a drug cheat.”