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Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Tour lets Vijay Singh off the hook

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Keeping outsiders at arm's length has always been as important to Vijay Singh as pounding golf balls from dawn until dusk. Even at the height of his dominance, when he was winning numerous times and ascending to the No. 1 ranking in the world, the Fijian preferred to keep to himself.

Media sessions were a chore, and talking about his game, his life, his amazing rise from Borneo club pro to bouncer to prominent player never was of any interest. He preferred the solitude of a driving range, or banter among his peers. Talking to reporters? Not so much.

Vijay Singh
Vijay Singh avoided punishment for taking deer-antler spray. Was he relieved? Nobody knows, because he isn't talking.

So it is not without a good bit of irony that Singh found himself in a mess over golf's doping policies for the last three months because he raved in an interview about taking deer-antler spray.

He admitted to Sports Illustrated in a January story that he paid $9,000 for a product that included spray, chips, beam ray and powder additive and that he used the spray "every couple of hours. I'm looking forward to some change in my body,'' he said. "It's really hard to feel the difference if you're only doing it for a couple of months.''

Singh clearly wasn't taking the deer-antler spray -- which contained a substance known as IGF-1 that was on the PGA Tour's banned list -- because it tasted good. One of the game's hardest workers, plagued by injuries in recent years, he was looking for improvement in his body, in his game. And he was giddy about it.

And isn't that the point of an anti-doping policy?

Singh, 50, obviously did not think he was doing anything illegal at the time. Who would brag about such a thing? But ignorance is not an excuse in the PGA Tour's drug policy, and admission of taking a banned substance is treated the same as testing positive.

A penalty should rightly follow, and Finchem said the tour issued a sanction in February that was appealed -- and dropped on Tuesday due to, essentially, a technicality. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) decided that deer-antler spray should not be on its banned list.

So even though IGF-1 was on the banned list when Singh admitted taking it, he was found to not be in violation of the policy because WADA has removed deer-antler spray from the list.

Or, Singh broke a rule, admitted, but did not suffer a penalty.

Interesting system.

This does not look good for golf or for WADA. If deer-antler spray does not help an athlete -- and it very well may not -- then why was it on the list to begin with?

WADA basically said that if a test comes along that shows elevated levels of IGF-1, an athlete faces doping penalties. But since no such test exists, the spray is not prohibited.

"I view it as kind of cross-checking the box language,'' Finchem said. "We're going to say that it's not on the list for purposes of consumption. But just know that we're not liable here if for some reason or another you managed to trigger a positive test even though there is no test out there. So it is kind of silly, but it is what it is.''

You can't make this stuff up. Finchem, a former lawyer and lobbyist who once worked in the White House and has been commissioner for nearly 20 years, had a hard time explaining it.

He even said that Singh did not follow procedure, that he should have asked before taking the substance. And yet Singh is going to get off without any serious sanction -- unless he is fined, which the tour will not announce.

At the very least, Singh deserves some sort of admonishment for not adhering to an August 2011 warning from the Tour that said deer-antler spray could contain a substance that was on the banned substance list. Singh missed the warning, took the substance, lauded its possibilities -- and walks away with no penalty.

Perhaps some good will come of this. Drug testing has been controversial in golf because so many believe that performance enhancers, especially steroids, are of little benefit. Strength does not assure getting the ball in the hole. Hitting the ball farther does not necessarily lead to hitting it better or straighter.

But it is difficult to argue that strength does not help in some fashion. If you hit the ball farther off the tee, in theory you have less club into the greens -- which enhances the ability to hit it closer. If you can take a drug that aids in recovery, it allows for more practice.

And that is ultimately the bottom line. Golfers don't play a contact sport, but they deal with all manner of nagging injuries. Neck, back, shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles. There are numerous aches and pains over the course of a golf season. Throw in all the walking in tournament rounds, practice rounds, pro-ams. Add travel from city to city.

All of it takes a toll and leads to bad practice habits or the inability to work on one's game. Drug-testing policies are put in place to keep the playing field level in this regard.

Singh was clearly trying to gain an advantage, whether he believed it was illegal or not. A Hall of Famer with 34 victories, a whopping 23 of them have come in his 40s, including one of his three major titles.

Ultimately, the product he took might have produced no benefit, but what if it did? What if he experimented with other substances along the way?

Singh has brought these questions upon himself.

Of course, now he's not talking.