How clean is your game? Golf and performance enhancing drugs

In this Olympic year, we are all well aware of anti-doping policies across a range of sports. Olympic athletes are tested randomly throughout the year, footballers regularly have to take drugs tests after matches or even when in training, the world of cycling has been rocked recently by the latest in a long line of drug cheats when Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.

So, how safe is the game of golf from performance enhancing drugs? Is our game clean?

At first, it would appear to be so. In 2007, PGA Tour boss Tim Fincham resported in a study into the use of performance enhancing drugs, that he initially syated that “there is no drug problem in golf”. Yet just a few weeks later, Mr Fincham revised his opinion stating:

“For the first time I am hearing of PGA Tour golfers complain “Have things gone overboard with drug testing?” The reality is that performance-enhancement drugs can insidiously infiltrate the sport of golf and have the serious potential to threaten the integrity of any sport”. (from Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience: Performance-Enhancing Drug: Where should the line be drawn and by whom – Michael Lardon MD, July 2008)

It’s certainly a topic for thought. In 2007, Gary Player (above), one of the most respected voices in Golf over the past 50 years, claimed that the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is rife in golf; stating prior to the 2007 British Open:

“I know, I know for a fact that there are golfers, whether it is HGH (Human-Growth Hormone), Creatine or steroids that are doing it (using PEDs)”

“The greatest thing the R&A, 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.”

Player also estimated that there were at least 10 players on the current tour that he knew were taking banned substances, but also stated “I might be way out – (it’s) definitely not going to be lower, but it might be a hell of a lot more.”

Since 2008, the European Tour have had random drug testing procedures in place. In 2009, PGA professional Doug Barron became the first professional tour golfer to be suspended after he tested positive for testosterone and beta-blockers.

Like many authorities, golfing bodies now have a list of banned substances that players and their teams are now well aware of, yet is there any real evidence that even these banned substances can improve a golfers performance?

Steroids and HGH can increase a players strength leading them to hit the ball further, but that does not always translate into success on the golf course. Other banned drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine are outlawed but tend to be viewed as recreational drugs, rather than PED’s, yet they are classified as such. It can be argued that stimulants like these can help a golfer be more alert for longer, but does that increase performance?

In one famous example, American professional Frank Lickliter questioned the rigorous nature of testing by citing Vicks Nasal Spray, which contains some drugs on the PGA banned list. Lickliter asked:

“Do you think Vicks nasal spray is helping me compete out here? Half the stuff they’re testing for doesn’t help golfers.”

That may well be the case, but to an extent Lickliter is missing the point.

With golf now being an Olympic sport, it will be under the same PEDs scrutiny as all other Olympic events for Rio 2016. As such, drugs testing in golf is here to stay for that reason alone.

Yet there are also much more obvious reasons for having a zero-tolerance policy to the use of any PEDs in golf. The game thrives because to many people, golfers are one of the few sports people who will not take advantage of a situation to their own benefit. ‘Fair Play’ is at the absolute heart of the game and without it, its appeal is hugely diminished.

Furthermore, the image of golf as a clean, family, wholesome sport is absolutely vital to help promote the game across the globe. Having a strict drugs policy in place reassures people that they are engaging with a game which takes every responsible precaution to ban PED’s, regardless of their effectiveness or not, from the sport.

To conclude, while Gary Player’s remarks may sound worrying, there are other remarks from golfers still on the tour that paint a different picture. Justin Rose (above) stated that he’d been a “professional for ten years” and that “I hope I’m not being ignorant about the situation but I’ve never come across it and never even heard a whisper.”

Perhaps the final word is best left to Ernie Els, a compatriot of Player who stated:

If he (Gary Player) knows it, he knows something I don’t. There is a list of substances they ban. I take Advil (a brand of US Painkiller) for pain and discomfort and anti-inflammatories and something for my knee when it gets damp; and I take Guinness.”

And if that’s the extent of PED use in golf, we should all drink to that!

But we are better having the random testing in place, just to be sure.

Pictures courtesy of Gary Player & Justin Rose Public Figure pages, Wikipedia Steroid page.

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