Suspension warranted for Vijay Singh
The PGA Tour's anti-doping program initiated more than four years ago has been met mostly with a yawn. Just one player -- a journeyman pro who seemingly had good reason for taking a banned substance -- has been suspended, and the notion that the game is devoid of such illicit activity has largely been upheld.
That's why the Sports Illustrated report that Vijay Singh admitted taking a substance that is banned -- but not tested for -- will be watched with great interest.
Singh, who turns 50 next month, has compiled a Hall of Fame career built on hard work and resiliency. He has overcome a cheating scandal very early in his career that, while mostly forgotten, still simmers beneath the surface in some circles.
Banished to a Borneo rain forest, Singh fought his way back, became a rookie on the PGA Tour at age 30 and for a time went toe-to-toe with Tiger Woods. Singh achieved the No. 1 world ranking while wearing out driving ranges from his home at PGA Tour headquarters in Florida to practice facilities around the world.
Could a Hall of Famer be suspended?
That is the question that comes to mind Wednesday in light of the SI report that quoted Singh saying he used a deer-antler spray that contains IGF-1, which the magazine described as a "natural, anabolic hormone that stimulates muscle growth." It is a banned substance in all major sports leagues, including the PGA Tour.
"I'm looking forward to some change in my body," Singh said, according to SI. "It's really hard to feel the difference if you're only doing it for a couple of months."
In a statement issued at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Singh admitted he has used the substance but said he was unaware it was banned.
According to SI, Singh paid a company called SWATS -- Sports With Alternatives to Steroids -- $9,000 last November for the spray, chips, beam ray and a powder additive. He was said to be using the spray every couple of hours, to sleep with the beam ray on and to have put chips on his ankles, waist and shoulders.
Ty Votaw, the tour's vice president of communications and international affairs, said the tour became aware of the report Tuesday and was looking into it. He also said the beam ray and chips are not against the rules.
Now what? The substance is not tested for because the tour says it has not come up with a reliable test. But the anti-doping policy clearly states that IGF-1 is banned; and Singh has admitted taking it, which means a suspension is warranted.
While he maintained in his statement that he was "shocked" to learn deer-antler spray might contain a banned substance, such a defense should have no bearing. According to the tour's anti-doping guidelines, "it does not matter whether you unintentionally or unknowingly used a prohibited substance. It is therefore very important for players to understand now only what is prohibited, but also how a prohibited substance may get into your body, potentially causing an accidental violation."
Three years ago, Doug Barron became the first -- and so far only -- player to be suspended during the anti-doping program. He had taken testosterone and beta blockers, although Barron claimed a medical condition that left his testosterone levels well below those of a man his age. He sought a therapeutic use exemption and was denied, but took the substance anyway, failed a drug test and was suspended for a year.
The subject of drug testing remains highly controversial in golf. Many believe PEDs are of no help to a golfer, who relies on precision and nerves as much as power and strength. And yet, there was a feeling that it was important to send a message to young players coming up that they would not be able to gain any kind of advantage by taking PEDs. And, of course, if golf wanted to be included in the Olympic Games, it needed to follow those anti-doping policies.
"You just can't avoid it anymore," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said when the drug policy was being put into effect.
For years Finchem felt there was not a need to test in golf.
"It's just too prevalent," he said then. "Too many other sports are having issues. There is too much of a perception growing that every athlete is taking advantage. We didn't have any of that, because we didn't have any rules. Now we have rules going into effect.
"My position hasn't changed. We have to work hard through that. The idea of testing doesn't change the culture of responsibility of players knowing the rules, playing by the rules, calling violations on yourself."
That has always been golf's hallmark. Players police themselves, calling obscure penalties when nobody else would have noticed. Singh has now called this violation on himself. How is it applied?
In 1985, Singh, who is from Fiji, was banned from the Asian Tour after an alleged cheating incident at the Indonesian Open. He was charged with altering his scorecard, and while the details remain murky, there is no disputing that the Southeast Asia Golf Federation suspended him indefinitely.
Over the years, Singh chose never to truly set the record straight, instead digging his game out of the dirt and making his way back from exile as a club pro, to working as a bouncer in Edinburgh to help make ends meet while playing the European Tour, to a three-major, 34-victory Hall of Fame career. He ranks third on the PGA Tour's career money list with more than $67.2 million, trailing only Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Singh has not won since capturing two playoff victories and the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup in 2008. He has had his share of injuries, including back and knee problems, that took their toll. Golfers might not play a contact sport, but the wear and tear of hitting thousands of practice balls while walking mile after mile on hilly terrain can cause more than a few aches and pains. Singh, a notorious practice lover, appears to have been looking for some help.
Two years ago, the tour warned players about deer-antler spray after Champions Tour player Mark Calcavecchia began endorsing the product.
Just like it is a player's responsibility to read the rules sheet each week, it is also the players' duty to know what they can and cannot take.It appears now that a Hall of Famer faces the indignity of being sent to the sideline.
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