Better Golfing Through Chemistry?

The integrity of so many professional sports has been compromised by athletes using performance enhancing drugs. Should we worry about golf also being infected?

The accepted wisdom has been that professional golfers don’t take, and furthermore don’t need to take, such drugs. The line has gone that since golfers need to be fluid and not muscle-bound, performance enhancing substances would not be helpful. This simply may be not true as there are substances that may indeed help golf performance and recovery from injury (e.g. human growth hormone, beta-blockers and even some steroids). And then it has been said that the environment for golf supposedly works against the use of such substances: unlike other sports, in golf honesty and adherence to the rules is paramount. Golfers call penalties on themselves, and the worst fate imaginable for a golfer is to be labeled a cheat. But is this enough to keep golfers from being tempted to use drugs?

Professional golfers play for millions of dollar in prize money – and very importantly – they don’t get paid unless they do well. Some of the richest athletes in the world are golfers. Last year 133 professional golfers earned over $1 million each from tournament prize money, and success on the course led to many more opportunities and sponsorship dollars for these players.  The pressures to succeed are enormous. So it would be hardly surprising if golfers, as other athletes, looked for short cuts to success.

The young golf pros of today are certainly much fitter than their predecessors. Their length has made many old courses obsolete.  And many of the senior players on the Champions Tour hit the ball further now than did in their prime on the main tour. Better exercise and more healthy lifestyles, as well as greatly improved equipment, are cited as the usual explanations for this. But could there be another, more sinister factor for such greatly improved performance?

Indeed, is there any evidence to suggest that professional golfers are using performance enhancing drugs? At the British Open in 2007 Gary Player stirred up controversy when he claimed that two pros told him that they used human growth hormone. He didn’t name names, but the issue didn’t go away, and in July 2008 the PGA Tour began a drug testing program. Last year, little known Doug Barron became the first PGA tour player to fail the PGA’s test and was suspended for a year. All things considered, the bagging of one journeyman player after more than a year of testing would seem to vindicate pro golfers.

But now how are we to understand the recent statement from Tiger Woods at his infamous public apology session?  Apropos of nothing, Tiger included a statement about never using performance-enhancing drugs into his apologies. As carefully scripted as that event was, you can be sure that there was a very compelling reason for Tiger to make that statement. The only logical explanation for Tiger to say this would seem to be to spike rumors about his association with discredited Canadian doctor Anthony Galea who is alleged to have treated several notable athletes with performance enhancing substances.

Of course, these days Tiger’s credibility isn’t very high, making it difficult to take his word on anything. Of all the pros, Tiger is clearly the most driven. Winning is the only acceptable result for him. Using phenomenal talent and a dedicated work ethic, Tiger has also taken every advantage he can to increase his chances of winning, from undergoing laser surgery to improve his vision to allowing his fans to remove boulders from his line of play.

But even if we should give Tiger a pass, how about the case of struggling pros – from former stars looking for renewed glory, to whiz kids who never really lived up to the hype of their potential, to journeymen on the edge of losing their tour cards? If there is an advantage to be gained from using performance enhancing drugs, how confident can we be that these guys wouldn’t take the chance?

Let’s hope that this isn’t the case, but professional golf may soon be entering the ugly world of drug cheats.

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