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Tip Of The Iceberg?

Doug Barron's suspension for performance-enhancing drugs leads to more questions than answers. For one, is this an isolated incident or evidence of a widespread problem?

November 3, 2009

Two years ago, I wrote a story for Golf Digest about the potential use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) on the professional golf tours. In the six months I spent researching the story, three pieces of information stood out more than anything else.

I was the one who asked Gary Player at the 2007 British Open about PED use in golf, and his response -- "I know there are golfers who are doing something, whether it's HGH or creatine or steroids. I know for a fact some golfers are doing it" -- was the first by anybody inside the sport that showed awareness of the PED issue.

Second, steroid expert Dr. Charles Yesalis outlined for me a simple, inexpensive way for a PGA Tour player to gain 10 percent more clubhead speed -- and up to 30 yards more carry on a tee shot -- with a 5-percent testosterone cream that would be virtually undetectable in a random drug test.

The last piece came from PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, who during my interview with him was openly disappointed that the Tour was being put in a position to have to impugn the honesty of its players by conducting PED testing.

He said the Tour would do it -- it had to, because any sport under consideration for the Olympics is required to have a testing program -- but it wouldn't necessarily announce any fines or suspensions that came as a result of failed tests.

Add it up and it seems like career journeyman Doug Barron's one-year suspension for violation of the PGA Tour's PED policy yesterday generates far more questions about potential PED use on the PGA Tour than it answers.

Barron's suspension is the first one announced by the Tour. There is no way to know if any other players have tested positive -- for either steroids or recreational drugs like marijuana or cocaine, which are also on the restricted list -- and received warnings, fines or some other non-public punishment. And the Tour did not announce the substance for which Barron tested positive. Barron previously said publicly that he had taken beta blockers earlier in his career -- which are on the banned list -- for treatment of panic disorder, but he didn't address any specific drug in the statement released by the Tour.

Because of the way the Tour conducts its program, Barron's suspension doesn't prove much of anything. Finchem and the Tour would certainly prefer to have you believe that the fact that a single journeyman -- who played one PGA Tour and four Nationwide events this year -- flunked a test shows that chemical cheating isn't widespread in golf. But Yesalis and elite golf trainer Randy Myers told me that any player with even a moderate amount of professional supervision and common sense could easily avoid failing a test. Players investing in HGH or other designer steroids can take those drugs without fear, since the tour's test doesn't measure them.

And even if a player did flunk a test -- for either a steroid or a recreational drug -- the Tour is under no obligation to announce it, in the same way it doesn't announce specific fines or suspensions for other conduct violations. It can "prosecute" a violator in whatever way best serves the PR interests of the Tour itself -- whether that's a suspension or a private meeting to encourage a player to pull himself together. "You'd want to keep control of the testing, so that if a star tested positive, you could cover it up and deal with it internally," Yesalis told me in 2007. "You want to pick specific drugs that apply to your sport, like the LPGA has done. There are loopholes, but what we're talking about is the perception, not the actual ethics or morals of what is happening."

And that's where we are two years later. Are tour players taking steroids -- or marijuana, or cocaine or any other drug? Who knows? The Tour certainly doesn't. Say Barron really is the only one to fail a test in the 15 months the Tour has been running its program. All that proves is that he didn't find one of the loopholes in the banned drug list. And if he's not the first person to fail, the Tour's drug testing program serves the exact, cynical purpose Yesalis said many sports leagues' programs do.

It's all for show.

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