Tom English: Golf finds a way of excusing its marquee players and insulting the rest of us

TWO months ago, the New York Times published a feature on dope testing in sport, but not your normal sport, not your cycling or your tennis or your athletics or your football.

Bernard Gallacher: 'I dont get it because I dont think golf has any problems with doping'. Picture: TSPL

No. This was a piece exploring testing far away from the limelight. To be precise, the first stopping-off point was the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir in Wausau, Wisconsin for the World Ice Fishing Championship.

Testers from the United States Anti-Doping Agency fetched up there unannounced in February.

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The ice fishermen – who cut a hole in the surface and then fish like their lives depend on it – are pushing hard, but probably in vain, for their sport to be included in the Winter Olympics. It’s hard to imagine any doping product that could possibly help an ice fisherman to catch more fish but the fact that they are hoping for Olympic status is enough for USADA to consider them fair game for a surprise test.

And it’s not the only fringe sport that is being looked at by the testers. In recent years competitors in darts, chess and miniature golf have been tested by representatives from the World Anti-Doping Agency.

In 2011, America’s ProMiniGolf Tour (it does exist, honest) recorded two failed dope tests. Fifty seven pages of the Tour rulebook are given over to their anti-doping policies. A chess player also tested positive for a banned substance in 2011. So did two indoor bowlers, eight roller sport athletes and one guy active in tug of war.

Now, it’s a bit unlikely that the chaps who tested positive in the MiniGolf Tour were horsing down steroids to help them putt a ball into a clown’s mouth, but their governing body still seeks to protect the game from anybody who might be deliberately trying to cheat. It seems ludicrous in miniature golf, but they’re vigilant none the less. Where there’s money to be won, people are capable of doing the strangest things in pursuit of it.

The likes of Bernard Gallacher and Paul Azinger should know this, but it seems they don’t. The sad thing about these two former Ryder Cup captains is that they think they’re helping golf when dismissing the notion that performance-enhancing drugs could be an issue in the game. They think that they are serving golf well by saying this scourge could never happen in their sport.

“I don’t get it because I don’t think golf has any problems with doping,” said Gallacher last week. “What could someone take that would make them become a better golfer?” Azinger said much the same thing on Twitter. “VJ [Singh] not suspended. Good. Now maybe the Tour should inform us of what drug has been proven to help us shoot lower scores?”

They carry on with the tired old line that “no drug could help a golfer” while never actually testing that theory by asking somebody who might actually know whether it is true or not. Does golf have a problem with doping? Nobody knows because the testing is nigh-on useless in the modern age. To only test for urine, as opposed 
to blood, is tantamount to having no testing at all. It is “disgraceful”, to use Greg Norman’s description.

And, worse again, there doesn’t seem to be any data for these tests. Who has been tested? Where? When? How many tests in total? Transparency, anybody?

When Gallacher and Azinger – and so many more like them in the game’s establishment – talk about how golf has nothing to fear from doping they do so with the confidence of ignorance.

How can they be so certain that their sport is clean when the testing is so bloody inadequate?

Has Gallacher ever quizzed an expert on doping in sport? Has Azinger ever spoken with anybody who has knowledge of the myriad doping products that could, potentially, benefit a golfer in terms of power and recovery from injury?

We cannot say that golf has an issue, but neither can we say that it does not. We don’t know because the game’s will to discover the truth is feeble.

And, even when the truth is staring them in the face, they flinch. Azinger seemed glad that Singh had escaped sanction for his admitted use of a banned substance. The Fijian’s case, though complicated, can be boiled down to some simple facts. All PGA Tour players were warned in 2011 about deer antler spray. Singh still took it, he admitted to taking it, he operates in a world of strict liability where every player is responsible for what goes into his body with ignorance or lack of intent being no defence – and then he escaped without punishment.

It all begged a rhetorical question: just what was it about the major championship-winning, Hall of Famer that made the PGA Tour bend over backwards to find reasons to exonerate him?

There was a violation of the code, but then the Tour, and WADA, did the Ponte Vedra Shuffle with the rulebook and, lo, Vijay was free. Guilty, but not guilty. A confessed user of a banned substance but liberated by that forgiving soul, Tim Finchem.

Phew! Golf could put away its Sword of Damocles, last seen when punishing a 14-year-old boy for slow play at Augusta and, four years earlier, when carpeting a 40-year-old journeyman for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Whether it’s Vijay’s spray or the farrago of Tiger’s drop at the Masters or Monty’s uber-drop in Jakarta, golf finds a way of excusing its marquee players and insulting the rest of us with their “Move along, nothing to see here” routine.

Gallacher is especially good at that. Again, I don’t doubt that he thinks he’s doing the right thing by the game, but the way he attacked Sandy Lyle in 2009 in the wake of Lyle pointing the finger at Colin Montgomerie for the Jakarta affair was thoroughly depressing. Gallacher felt that it was not in golf’s interest to have Lyle calling out a big-name player for cheating. This was the establishment once again closing its eyes to an uncomfortable truth.

“Sandy is out of order,” said Gallacher at the time. “It’s very poor what he has done and somebody really needs to give Sandy some advice. He’s spent his whole life being a nice guy and now he’s in grave danger of spoiling it. He’s bitter. He’s a bit twisted on this one.”

The way the establishment rounded on Lyle that week and made him the villain remains a disgrace but then that is what you get from people who think they’re protecting the game when, in fact, they’re protecting a myth, a fairytale of a sport where nobody cheats and they all live happily in their perfect world.

Thank heavens, then, for Norman’s analysis and his anger. Or maybe he was being bitter and twisted, too.