Tom English: Golf’s complacency on drugs exposed

Vijay Singh has admitted using banned 'deer antler spray'. Picture: Jane Barlow
Vijay Singh has admitted using banned 'deer antler spray'. Picture: Jane Barlow
Share this article
Have your say

IN EARLY 2006, Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA tour, spoke loftily about why the game of golf had nothing to fear from the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs.

Though his tour – and all other tours – didn’t conduct dope testing at the time, Finchem was categoric about golf being clean. When asked how on earth he could say such a thing given that there were no tests and therefore no way of catching any cheats, he droned about the morality of the game, the fact that golfers are stand-up guys who would never resort to the kind of means he saw in so many other sports. Golf was different.

“In golf,” he said, “a player is charged with following the rules. He can’t kick his ball in the rough [oh yeah?] and he can’t take steroids. We rely on the players to call rules on themselves.” In August that same year, Greg Norman was asked what he thought of the PGA tour’s stance on performance enhancing drugs. “A bunch of bullshit,” Norman replied. “It’s been rumoured for over 20 years, players using outside substances to help their performances. If you’re playing for $5million a week, you’ve got to take advantage of it the best you can. It isn’t just steroids. HGH, beta blockers, there’s probably a multitude of drugs we don’t even know about.”

A year later, Gary Player detonated a bomb at the Open Championship at Carnoustie when he spoke of doping in the game, claiming that he knew of a number of examples and that it was a problem that golf needed to face up to. The game’s establishment rounded on him. Phil Mickelson said: “I don’t think there’s even a remote chance that doping will happen.” Nick Faldo said: “Bottom line, nothing helps golf.”

Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, was asked for a comment. “Tiger Woods said it [doping] wasn’t happening. So as I said, the jury is out on this.” That seemed to be the extent of Dawson’s investigation. He asked Tiger. Tiger said nobody was taking anything. And Dawson moved on.

That same week I spoke to four experts and all four said that, by ignoring the threat of doping, golf was playing a dangerous game.

Peter Sonksen was Emeritus Professor of Endocrinology at St Thomas’s Hospital and King’s College London and a specialist in the field of Human Growth Hormone. Dr Conor O’Brien was a former chairman of the Irish Sports Council, a former committee member of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Professor Sandro Donati was a former coach of Italy’s middle-distance runners and author of a hugely respected report on the use of blood-booster EPO. Christophe Muniesa was the progressive executive director of the French Golf Federation, where testing for performance enhancing drugs had already been happening for six years.

All of these insiders said that golf had better watch out. Professor Donati said the sport was in a “clear and present danger. I suspect there are already golfers who are taking doping products”. Muniesa said that he was “deeply concerned. I have my suspicions but I have no facts,” he said.

In fairness, drug testing came to golf in a very limited form a year later and little has been heard about the subject ever since. Dopers? Cyclists, footballers, boxers, rugby players, tennis players, but not golfers. No, no. Nothing like that could ever happen in the game of golf.

Yesterday brought the first stirrings of a controversy that amounts to the golf establishment’s worst nightmare.

In a piece in the American magazine, Sports Illustrated, three-times major winner, Vijay Singh, was named as one of several athletes who have used a banned substance.

The story of Singh and his dealings with a two-man company called S.W.A.T.S – Sports with Alternatives to Steroids – is one that threatens to blow a giant-sized hole in the complacency and ignorance of those who have laboured under the misapprehension that golf has little to worry about.

Singh has struggled with injuries for years. His back and his right knee have given him gyp. The Fijian came in contact with the owners of S.W.A.T.S, Christopher Key and Mitch Ross, an admitted former steroids dealer. They run their company from the back of a gym near Birmingham, Alabama, and produce, among other things, deer antler spray which they claim helps athletes perform better on the field.

Sports Illustrated quote Key as saying that S.W.A.T.S is the “most controversial supplement company on earth”.

Singh is said to have received, among other things, a power additive which Key and Ross claimed to Sports Illustrated was so powerful that it had put muscle mass on a woman in a coma. Singh also paid for a treatment that involved an oscillating beam ray lightbulb that could, according to the S.W.A.T.S men, knock out the swine flu virus in 90 minutes.

If that sounds like nonsense then it doesn’t really matter because the most significant matter in question here is Singh’s use of deer antler spray, which stretches back to November of last year. Or, at least, that is when he paid Ross of S.W.A.T.S $9,000. He is quoted as saying that he uses the banned spray “every couple of hours. . . every day. He says: “I’m looking forward to some change in my body.”

What is it, this mysterious spray? Human Growth Hormone is converted in the liver to something called IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor. “We have deer that we harvest out in New Zealand,” Key says. “Their antlers are the fastest-growing substances on planet Earth. . . because of the high concentration of IGF-1. We’ve been able to freeze dry that out, extract it, put it in a sublingual spray that you shake for 20 seconds and then spray three times under your tongue.”

There is no definitive study that proves beyond doubt that IGF-1 is an effective performance-enhancer but there has been at least one study carried out and it was done by the American television channel, CNBC. In 2011, it gave 16 male weightlifters the antler spray and gave another 16 a placebo. Ten weeks later the weightlifters who had given the placebo showed no sign of improvement in various tests they were given. The deer antler group, however, saw a four per cent increase in their bench press results and a 10.1 per cent increase in their squat test. The scientist carrying out the experiment said they recorded “significant improvement in aerobic capacity” with those on the deer antler treatment.

Deer antler spray is a banned substance but then that is hardly news. Singh is pleading ignorance but his comments last night are hard to swallow.

“While I have used deer antler spray, at no time was I aware that it may contain a substance that is banned under the PGA Tour Anti-Doping Policy,” he said. “In fact, when I first received the product, I reviewed the list of ingredients and did not see any prohibited substances. I am absolutely shocked that deer antler spray may contain a banned substance and am angry that I have put myself in this position. I have been in contact with the PGA TOUR and am cooperating fully with their review of this matter. I will not be commenting further at this time.”

The problem for Singh is that ignorance should not be a defence. The PGA Tour have previously warned their golfers about deer antler spray. In America there has been a fair bit of noise about it in recent years. In 2009, the American footballer, David Vobora, failed an out-of-season drugs test, his sample coming up positive for methyltestosterone. In the world of American football, where the tolerance for doping is apparently limitless, they actually issued Vobora with a ban. He got the princely sum of a four-game suspension.

Vobora sued S.W.A.T.S on the basis that medical research had shown that the deer antler spray they had supplied him with had become contaminated because of what he claimed was a lack of quality control. His sample contained the methyltestosterone as a result, he argued. Vobora won damages to the tune of $5.4m. S.W.A.T.S. as far as we can tell, never paid. They folded and reopened under a different corporate name six months later. Newco S.W.A.T.S, perhaps?

In the wake of that Vobora case, golfers were warned about deer antler spray in 2011. Former Open champion, Mark Calcavecchia, was ordered to stop endorsing S.W.A.T.S “ultimate spray” at that point. And he wasn’t the only one. Having been issued with that directive from the tour, is Singh really going to plead innocent now? And, if he does, will golf buy it? If this was a no-mark player we were talking about then you can bet that the tour would come down heavily on him in an attempt to show how tough they are on the doping issue. But a marquee player? A multiple major winner?

This is a horror show for golf. We’re guessing Finchem is singing a different tune now to the one he has been singing for far too long.