John Huggan: PGA Tour is inviting innuendo

Dustin Johnson said his six-month absence from the game was down to alcohol abuse. Picture: AP
Dustin Johnson said his six-month absence from the game was down to alcohol abuse. Picture: AP
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SEVEN days ago, not long after the conclusion of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, Michael Bamberger of Sports Illustrated asked the new champion, Dustin Johnson, a question: “Have you ever flunked a Tour drug test?”

The answer was short and emphatic. “No,” said Johnson, who recently returned from an exactly six-month-long absence from the game. “Thanks.”

We’ll probably never know for sure, even if Johnson – who similarly disappeared from the game for 11 weeks in 2012 – has “previous”. A lack of transparency when it comes to meting out fines and/or suspensions has long been a staple of PGA Tour policy. We’ll have to take Johnson’s word for it when he says his absence was caused by abuse of alcohol – “when I drank I drank too much” – rather than pharmaceuticals.

So, because the PGA Tour has never confirmed or denied the result of any examination of the 30-year old South Carolinian’s impressively athletic physique, there is no way of verifying the veracity or otherwise of his response to Bamberger’s direct question. Like so much of what goes on inside the tour’s headquarters at Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida, the truth is a mystery known only to commissioner Tim Finchem and his blazer-wearing henchmen.

Why this is so speaks to a long-held hauteur, not only within golf’s biggest and most powerful tour, but the game itself. Howard Cosell, the late and notoriously self-important American sports commentator, always exhorted the world to “tell it like it is”. But professional golf wasn’t listening. In a game that has always sold itself to sponsors as saint-like in its behaviour and overall conduct, the mantra has forever been: “If the legend differs from fact, print the legend”.

By way of example, a few years ago, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were part of a joint press conference. The subject turned to the pair’s play-off for the US Open in 1962 at Oakmont. Before they teed-off – according to Nicklaus – Palmer offered to “play for the trophy and split the cash”. Nicklaus meant to be jocular, but Palmer, claiming to not recall such an offer, was far from pleased. It was a brief – and typically inadvertent – glimpse into the sort of thing that goes on behind the scenes.

Equally, back in the 1950s, a tour player by the name of George Bayer was “asked” by a group of his peers to take a break from the circuit so that he could “learn how to mark his ball properly”. Bayer did so, albeit the reason for his sudden absence was never revealed publicly.

Another figure from the world of US sports, former college basketball coach Abe Lemons, perhaps put it best: “I don’t have any rules. Because it’s always the best players who break them.”

Nothing much has changed on that front. Although the PGA Tour does make public the verdict when a player fails a test through taking a performance-enhancing drug, so-called “conduct violations” are kept in house. When a player is fined for, say, throwing a club into a lake as world No.1 Rory McIlroy did last week, the details of any subsequent punishment are forever secret. Cue conspiracy theories.

“We don’t think our method is particularly complicated,” claims Finchem, who has never used five words when 500 will do. “When we have drug testing, we have a test occasionally for things that relate to performance‑enhancement substances, things that we view as really part of something that could affect competition.

“And we could have a positive test in an area that is technically a violation from a list of things we test for – but we view it as a substance that falls into a different bucket. We view it as a substance that relates to substance abuse and with conduct of the individual. We treat those two things differently. It’s a different process in each case.

“In the PED case, if it leads to a suspension, we announce the suspension. If it’s a matter related to conduct and/or substance abuse, whether it be alcohol or recreational drugs, we treat it as that. And we have a different way we go about determining need.”

There is also, according to the PGA Tour’s diminutive leader, another good reason for this reluctance to embrace openness. “We don’t think the fans really want to know about most of the stuff we would be talking about,” he says. “We don’t think there’s a large volume of it and we don’t think much of it is very serious.”

Ah, but it’s not that simple. Because the tour routinely says nothing about anything, when a player does take a legitimate break for perfectly legitimate reasons, spurious speculation immediately follows.

Take the case of Sergio Garcia in late 2010. When the Spaniard, a temporarily lost soul following the break-up of his romance with Greg Norman’s daughter, Morgan Leigh, took a break from golf, all kinds of fanciful tales did the rounds. Was the seven-time Ryder Cup player under suspension? Was he ill? What was going on? No one in authority stepped up to refute the first of those options. All of which was grossly unfair to the player.

There are apparently different rules for different folks though. More recently, we had the admittedly extreme case of a former PGA Tour player by the name of Dan Olsen making all kinds of unsubstantiated claims regarding Tiger Woods and the 14-time major champion’s current sabbatical. Olsen eventually apologised but not before he had alleged that Woods is serving a one-month ban for failing a drug test. So far-fetched and shocking were Olsen’s utterings, even the tour was pushed into action.

“There is no truth whatsoever to these claims,” said [deep breath] PGA Tour executive vice-president and chief marketing officer Ty Votaw. “We categorically deny these allegations.”

Back in 2011, Rory Sabbatini played in the Byron Nelson Classic at the end of May. His next PGA Tour event was in August but in between the South African competed in both the US Open and the Open Championship. Neither falls under the auspices of the PGA Tour and Sabbatini’s prolonged break from the game was never explained.

The blame for all of the confusion must lie firmly at Finchem’s door. And, at last, there are signs that the most powerful man in professional golf is beginning to recognise the quality of the opposing argument. Last week, amidst his usual barrage of almost unintelligible verbiage, the former Democratic Party lobbyist did seem to concede that his long-established wall of silence reflects badly on the organisation he heads. Or, at least, I think he did.

Here’s how Finchem explained himself. Good luck understanding him: “I think it raises a good point when you say, well, if it triggers a situation where a player is stepping away from the game or getting, maybe being suspended but we really don’t know, does that create confusion, and that’s one point that we are giving some thought to on that particular situation.”