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Forget About Dustin Johnson, Golf Needs To Get Serious About Anti-Doping

Forget About Dustin Johnson, Golf Needs To Get Serious About Anti-Doping
By Conall Cahill Updated
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After Dustin Johnson won the US Open last night, the PGA Tour, organisers of the main professional tours in the US, tweeted out an article about his victory. The tweet read, "'Feels good. Really good.' Dustin Johnson will remember this Father's Day for years to come." This summed up, in a way, how the PGA Tour must be feeling about Johnson at the moment.

The big South Carolina man ended up easily winning his first major after it looked as though his efforts to do so could be unfairly affected by the fact that he didn't actually know whether he was a shot ahead or level with Shane Lowry in the latter stages of his round.  Uncertainty reigned over whether or not he would, after his round had finished, be deducted a shot due to his ball moving after he had (supposedly) addressed it on the fifth green. And such uncertainty, created by the United States Golf Association (USGA), was slated by figures such as Rory McIlory and Jordan Spieth as totally unfair to 'DJ'- which, of course, it was. Sympathy abounded for Johnson.

It was, no doubt, a relief for the USGA that Johnson won by three strokes in the end and so their farcical meandering didn't have an impact on the result. As Johnson said himself, "I got a penalty. It didn't matter at the end of the day. And that's it."

But Johnson's win, and the general feel-good factor surrounding it-his triumph through adversity and the relief that a mess-up by officials didn't deny him in the end will have been celebrated by the PGA Tour as well. This is a player whose off-course conduct made him, for a while, an uncomfortable subject for fellow pros when asked about him, a player whose alleged affairs and reported failed drugs tests made squirm-inducing reading for those in charge of selling the game at which he excelled. The PGA Tour marketing department will be entirely grateful that the back pages, social media outlets and websites across the globe will feature pictures of Johnson holding his son or pumping his fist on Sunday evening, a smile across his face and a 'major title' (at last) to adorn his Wikipedia page.


Golf loves its clean stars, its image of white perfection. Perhaps that is why it has never really been able to love Tiger Woods as it once did since his own private discrepancies became public. And maybe that is why, when golf.com reported that Johnson's six-month "voluntary leave of absence" from the sport in 2014 and his three-month break in 2012 with a supposed sore back were both actually suspensions for a failed drugs test due to cocaine use, the PGA Tour were quick to refute allegations that it had failed to disclose the suspension in 2014 and the reasons for it (they did not address the allegations concerning Johnson's 2012 hiatus) .

To be clear, this is no Dustin-bashing article. There is no concrete proof of any wrongdoing on his part. As for his private life, that is of little concern. But his example does cause one to ponder the PGA's conduct. In particular, it makes one consider the organisation's apparent fear of negative press and its lethargy when it comes to anti-doping. It makes one question whether this lack of pro-activity is caused by an almost adolescent fear of exposing the acne that is doping - even on what might be a tiny scale.

Consider that among the signatories to the World Anti-Doping Agency's Code are such esteemed sporting bodies as the World Armwrestling Federation and the International Federation of Cheerleading and yet the PGA Tour is nowhere to be found on the list; this despite the rather vague assertion on their website that the PGA "has a comprehensive anti-doping policy that is based upon the World Anti-Doping Agency Code" (the International Golf Federation is indeed on the list but the PGA Tour falls outside its jurisdiction).


While David Howman, WADA's Director General, issued severe criticism about the PGA's anti-doping procedures, referring to the "gaps in the program", the fact that the Tour still is not a signatory of the WADA code means that it can, and has, failed to outlaw certain substances that WADA prohibits under its regulations. Corticosteroids, for example; under WADA regulations glucocorticoids, a class of corticosteroid, are "prohibited when administered by oral, intravenous, intramuscular or rectal routes" - but under the PGA's anti-doping manual corticosteroids are "permitted". The PGA's governing body was compared unfavourably to its European counterpart by Howman, who said that he wished the PGA Tour would "would go the same way as the European Tour" in terms of its testing methods and procedures (though the European Tour is not a signatory to the WADA code either).

This comes a year after International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach urged the PGA Tour to fully comply with the WADA code ahead of the Olympics in Rio. There will be thirteen weeks of stringent testing in the lead-up to the Olympics conducted by the aforementioned International Golf Federation, but only for players wishing to compete at the Games. And it gets harder to understand why the PGA maintain their arguably lax attitude towards doping regulations when one listens to what players have to say on the matter.

In 2013, Tiger Woods remarked that in the five years since the PGA's antidoping policy was implemented he had never been tested outside of a competition site. The same report quoted Rory McIlroy as declaring "never" when he was asked the same question. Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson - not one of these top players had ever been tested away from a place where a golf tournament was being held. Scott Piercy, who finished tied for second place last night, was asked whether he had ever been subject to testing outside a tournament week. His response would provoke guffaws of laughter from any professional cyclist or athlete: "I’d be surprised if they did that. That’s borderline illegal."


A few months after these comments were made, an interesting column appeared in 'Golf Digest', written anonymously by a tour professional. The player admitted that there were suspicions on tour surrounding certain players and their reasons for being absent from the game for long periods; suspicions that won't sound unfamiliar to anyone who has read into whisperings about Dustin Johnson's prolonged spells off-course (in fact, the aforementioned golf.com report claimed that during Johnson's three-month absence from the tour in 2012 he was "seen hitting balls regularly in South Florida, where he lives").


The unnamed golfer wrote:

What's weird is the secrecy about suspensions. When a guy doesn't tee it up for a stretch, rumors start about the true nature of his 'injury' or 'personal reasons.' It might be better if it were public and transparent. Then there would never be any conspiracy theories about certain players getting preferential treatment.

And it would not appear that much has improved since then in the PGA's attitude to testing. Two-time major winner John Daly last year described the drug testing procedures as "a big joke" and ridiculed the so-called 'random' nature of the tests ("I'm so sick of it being 'random.' It's not random"). A 'Tour veteran and multiple tournament winner' backed up Daly, telling ESPN that only "safe" athletes were tested. Anyone who was "iffy" was avoided. Out of competition testing didn't exist, he claimed.

This is despite WADA revealing late last year that golf produced a higher rate of adverse findings in drug tests (1.6%) than athletics, cycling, rugby or football-and that concurrently the sport conducted a minuscule 507 drugs tests in 2014 compared to, for example, football (31, 242) or athletics (25, 830).

In 2007, legend of the game Gary Player caused a huge stir when he claimed that he knew "for a fact" that certain golfers were taking performance-enhancing drugs, "whether it's HGH, Creatine or steroids". The furore surrounding this suggestion perhaps took away from Player's next point, which was a highly sentient one:


The greatest thing that the R&A, the USGA and the PGA can do is have tests at random. It's absolutely essential that we do that. We're dreaming if we think it's not going to come into golf.

And while there are random tests being conducted, one gets the sense that Player wasn't talking about a couple of tests a year or the lackadaisical trend currently being set by the PGA. When asked about Player's comments, David Howman replied that it would be "naive" to consider golf as somehow beyond the reach of doping - although two-time US Open winner Retief Goosen wasn't impressed, suggesting that while drugs may have been prevalent in Players' time, they aren't an issue in the modern game. Goosen accused his fellow South African of trying to "damage the sport".


Two years after Player's comments, Doug Barron, a mediocre tour player, was banned for taking testosterone. Barron said that he needed it for medical reasons. The Tour disagreed until eventually, after legal action, Barron was granted a therapeutic use exemption. But the striking comments came from Barron's lawyer, who suggested that his client was being made a scapegoat by the PGA to show how serious it was about anti-doping while it ignored other golfers' positive tests. This assertion wasn't entirely refuted when PGA commissioner Tim Finchem admitted that they "may have had some test results that trouble" them but that they "don't publicize" these results.

There is no suggestion here that golf has a huge doping problem; the anti-doping efforts being made by those at the upper echelons of the sport's main governing organisation simply need to be examined. Golf, and the PGA, needs to be willing to move away from its clean-cut image. To take the risk that, if it digs, it might uncover something ugly, something that could tarnish the sport. If nothing untoward is exposed after such efforts are made then at least we can all watch the sport knowing that efforts are being made to ensure it is played fair and clean.

Currently, the PGA is held back by fear. Fear that it might get bruises on its choirboy skin, dirt on its designer jacket. Fear that is summed up by something Finchem said to ex-WADA chief Dick Pound when Pound suggested that golf should improve its anti-doping measures.

Ah, but if I do that then they are all going to think my guys are just like those baseball players and football players and I don't want that.

Pound sees the way golfers' body shapes are changing and sees the need for questions to be asked. Meanwhile, blood testing still isn't done by PGA testers due to concerns that it could "impact performance".

The only way to test for Human Growth Hormone? Blood.

In any sport that has exploded with doping revelations there has been an identifiable period when those in charge refused to ask questions or take measures to investigate the legitimacy of performances. Golf needs to learn from the mistakes of other sports and take ownership of its own affairs.

Questions need to be asked. The truth of the fairytale needs to be examined. Then, at least, we might be able to believe in it.

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