It's easy to peg the explosive distance gains in professional golf to a familiar set of theories: supercharged modern equipment, improved agronomy and sophisticated workouts by dedicated athletes. No one in the preservation-of-the-game versus unfettered-technology debate disputes these factors. But could golfers also be getting an assist from something else?
The recent assault on baseball's power records exposed the widespread use of a controversial tool in the ambitious athlete's toolbox: anabolic steroids. Doctors and trainers say steroid use is epidemic at the elite level—a high-tech arms race in virtually every professional and Olympic sport, from bicycle racing to wrestling. The level of sophistication in combining training methods with performance-enhancing drugs—and the ability to minimize health risks and dodge testing programs designed to keep them out of sports—has increased exponentially.
Besides, the conventional wisdom that steroids wouldn't be particularly useful in golf, where it doesn't pay to be muscle-bound in a pharmaceutically induced frenzy when standing over an important five-footer, may not apply anymore. "Endurance runners have been taking steroids for 40 or 50 years to increase the amount of training they can do," says Dr. Charles Yesalis, a professor of health policy and administration at Penn State and one of the foremost experts on anabolic steroids. "Do they look like muscle-bound freaks? And it's ridiculous to think that steroid use would somehow make a golfer too aggressive or unable to concentrate well enough to play effectively. Are you telling me that a major league baseball player doesn't have to concentrate as much to hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball?"
After six months of research, Golf World has not turned up a documented case of steroid abuse on golf's major tours. Still, the rampant use of steroids in other sports and the insistence of medical experts that steroids can enhance performance lead some to believe steroids will inevitably encroach upon pro golf, probably first among young amateurs and developmental pros. Those concerned about the matter suggested that golf's governing bodies address such a possibility by enacting more clear rules and drug testing now.
Currently no major professional tour or golf organization has specific rules in place banning the use of performance-enhancing drugs, much less random drug testing to back up those rules. According to Yesalis, who testified twice before Congress in 2005 in conjunction with the ongoing Major League Baseball steroid investigation, that could be a serious mistake. (Australasian PGA Tour chief executive Andrew Georgiou, frustrated that his organization does not have a testing policy, told The Age of Australia this week that the situation is "an accident waiting to happen.")
"The notion that there aren't any steroids in golf is incredibly naive," Yesalis says. "Steroids work. There's too much money in the sport, and you can manage the steroids the right way, without serious side effects. You can certainly make the argument that the benefits outweigh the risks. What reasonable person thinks that athletes in any sport—golf included—aren't doing it?"
For their part, some golfers are skeptical of Yesalis' claim. "Could there be steroids out here? I guess it's possible," says Champions Tour player Peter Jacobsen. "But if I were a star player, I'd be very leery of putting anything in my body today that might impact my career or my ability to play 10 years from now or 20 years from now. Baseball players or football players get paid for what they did before or for what they might do in the future. If I don't play well, I don't get paid."
Harrison Frazar, who has played on the PGA Tour since 1998, says there would be more chatter if drug use was prevalent. "I don't think it's fair to say it's widespread," says Frazar. "It wouldn't surprise me if a few guys were doing it, but I think it'd be talked about more in the locker room and among players if it was more widespread."
Other doctors and trainers agree with Yesalis' assessment that steroids could help a tour player get stronger, but wouldn't speculate how widespread the drugs might be in professional golf. "I haven't heard any talk about steroids in golf, but no sport is immune to it," says Dr. Gary Wadler, a clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "Any component of strength is going to be enhanced by taking them. If a golfer can benefit from added strength, steroids are going to be a benefit in that regard."
There is the long-held idea that golf is a gentlemen's (or gentlewomen's) game, different from many other sports and self-policed by a group of players who are, by-and-large, committed to the rules and fair play. But Randy Myers, who has trained more than 100 tour players in the last 15 years, first at PGA National Resort Spa and now as the director of fitness at Sea Island GC in St. Simons Island, Ga., believes some players are willing to do whatever they can to get an edge. "We'd be ignorant to think that steroids aren't going on at least to some degree," says Myers. "We'd be underestimating the desire some professional players have to get better. You're always going to have undersized, underdeveloped players who are going to be desperate to reach out and push that envelope. And I think the next generation of players is going to be more willing to push that envelope because they've been more exposed to steroids and how they work."
The average driving distance on the men's tour has increased almost 30 yards since 1980, but that gain has been attributed mostly to equipment advances, not chemistry. Run the numbers, though, and it's easy to see why a chemical "helper" might be enticing for a player who has hit the wall in terms of adding distance conventionally, through a combination of exercise and finely tuned equipment. On a launch monitor, each additional mile per hour of clubhead speed is worth roughly two yards of carry. If the average male tour player swinging 118 miles per hour with the driver added 10 percent more speed, he could carry the ball nearly 25 more yards. For an LPGA player swinging at 95 mph, that means a gain of almost 20 yards.
"There's no doubt that muscle power contributes to distance, and having more of it makes a player's game stronger all around," says instructor Mike McGetrick, who works with Juli Inkster, Meg Mallon, Wendy Ward and Brandt Jobe, among other tour players. "Strong players can square the club up easier, especially out of heavy rough, and they've got more endurance." Wadler likens it to the benefits a home-run hitter would get from added strength and mass. "Force equals mass times acceleration," he says. "It's basic physics. If you're a bigger person developing more acceleration, you're transmitting that energy into the ball at impact."
Nick Price was one of the last "average length" players to be No. 1 in the world. He averaged 277.4 yards off the tee in 1994, when he won the British Open and the PGA Championship. "If I had 5 percent more clubhead speed, I'd still be playing 30 tournaments," says Price, who averaged 282.6 yards in 2005. "Let's face it. Unless you can hit the ball 310 yards now, you will never be No. 1 in the world, and that's a sad state of affairs. If I'm playing with a college kid and he's hitting it 280, I tell him he has to find more. But what if he's maxed out his power? The message we're sending him leaves the door open for him to try something else to find the power he needs."
The other, more subtle benefit to taking steroids is the ability to recover more quickly from strenuous workouts or an injury. "That's really one of the unspoken aspects of steroid use," says Wadler. "If you take steroids and then go to bed, you're not going to get any stronger. You've got to be working out to get the benefit. The drug helps you work out longer and get back to working out sooner after getting sore or getting hurt."
So what would a golfer do to get stronger, and what would he or she look like after taking performance-enhancing drugs? A tour player built like Mr. Olympia probably wouldn't be able to make a nice, wide backswing, but there is plenty of middle ground in which a golfer can get stronger. Yesalis' steroid menu for a prospective golf doper starts with a low-dose testosterone cream, used in conjunction with the workout program the golfer is already undertaking. "It would be very, very easy to gain 10 to 15 pounds of muscle—something you'd definitely notice in a person's build," says Yesalis. "You'd see a significant gain in clubhead speed—up to 10 percent. The average person doesn't understand that in world-class sports, a 1-percent gain in performance is dramatic."
Administered with expert supervision and "cycled"—alternating between a series of weeks using the drug and a series of weeks off it—the testosterone cream Yesalis described wouldn't be any more dangerous to a person than taking a corticosteroid-based prescription allergy medication like Flonase or Nasonex. "There is no completely safe drug, but we've been using low doses of testosterone medically for 70 years," says Yesalis. "Steroid use in professional sports isn't a public health crisis. It's an ethical problem."
Cost wouldn't be a factor, either. According to Yesalis, 20,000 tablets of Winstrol, the brand of drug sprinter Ben Johnson took before his tainted victory in the 100 meters at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, can be purchased for as little as $500-$600 on the Internet. Taken in the small doses a tour player would require to see performance benefits, that supply would last more than 20 years. Testosterone creams also can be purchased on the Internet with nothing more than a credit card and a mailing address, or over the counter with cash a few miles from the U.S. border in Mexico. More exotic drugs like human growth hormone—which stimulates muscle growth, reduces body fat and prevents cell breakdown during exercise—are freely available in China and cost less than $2,000 per cycle.
"I think golf is a late-arriving sport in terms of fitness," says Myers, who has trained Gary Player and Bruce Fleisher, among other players. "A lot of players I see don't have the sophistication when it comes to steroids to even know what they could do. I could see a situation where a player is working with a trainer and takes something without knowing exactly what it is. It already happens now, with things like vitamin supplements, protein drinks and creatine."
Athletes with the inclination—and bank balance—to get chemical help have access to experts who craft designer versions of steroids that don't show up on tests. "Users with scientific advisors—and I can promise you that highly paid athletes who use steroids have the best advisors money can buy—will always be ahead of the cops," Yesalis says. American sprinter Kelli White passed more than a dozen Olympic-caliber drug tests while taking the steroid THG—a drug that helped transform her from a mediocre collegiate runner into a world champion. She was banned from competition in 2004 only after admitting to taking THG in testimony related to the investigation of Victor Conte and BALCO, Inc., the San Francisco-area supplement company famous for its association with San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds. Conte was sentenced in October to four months in prison after pleading guilty to steroid distribution charges.
According to World Anti-Doping Agency statistics, nearly 170,000 samples from participants in Olympic and non-Olympic sports were scrutinized for 11 kinds of performance-enhancing agents, including anabolic steroids, in 2004. Almost 3,000 of the samples showed the presence of a banned substance—a test failure rate of 1.72 percent. Of the 384 college golfers tested in the NCAA's anti-doping program, seven flunked.
If there are steroid users in golf—and virtually every doctor, player and trainer interviewed for this story believes that at least a few players are using performance-enhancing drugs—they would fit a profile. "People who take them develop a certain look, and they don't look like Laura Davies, and they don't look like Natalie Gulbis," says Dr. Bill Mallon, a former tour player who is now an orthopedic surgeon. Mallon is also an Olympic historian and was a consultant for the USGA on the inclusion of golf in the 2012 Olympics—which, had it occurred, would have forced the sport to adopt an anti-doping policy that met IOC standards. "Tiger Woods is probably the best-conditioned male I see out there, and he doesn't look like he's on steroids. He just looks like he's in great shape. I don't know if any women are using them, but steroids do tend to have more of an effect on women than men. That's why the East German women in the 1970s became so dominant. The East German men didn't get a similar bump—even though they had access to the same drugs."
To Yesalis, the evidence is more than circumstantial. It's biological and statistical. "One of the things people like me look for is a change in physique that is significantly beyond what you would see from training alone," says Yesalis, who edited Anabolic Steroids in Sport and Exercise, the standard reference text on the subject. "You compare that to the changes in physiques of other performers in the same sport, and look at the changes in performance as well. There's no athlete in any world-class sport who is the only one taking up strength training. The notion that any one person has found some training regimen that's a secret—that nobody else has figured out yet—that's just crazy. You can't explain some of the performance gains you see any other way than to conclude it is because of performance-enhancing drugs."
As for the argument that golf is a gentlemen's game—a game in which players are honor-bound to call penalties on themselves—Yesalis and Myers are skeptical. "You're talking to a guy who doesn't believe that people in one sport are more or less ethical than people in another," says Yesalis. "Besides, many people would differentiate between training techniques and what goes on on the course. A golfer's game would seem to be made on the practice range, and it's a fact that steroids can help a player practice longer and harder." Myers frames the issue more succinctly. "The main question for me is, is it cheating to push the envelope?" he asks. "Steroids only work if you're training like crazy, and they aren't against the rules."
In golf, the risk of detection is almost zero. No professional tour—or the USGA—has specific language in its rules prohibiting performance-enhancing substances. The PGA and LPGA tours' professional conduct rules prohibit players from using or selling illegal substances—rules originally tailored to warn players off recreational drugs like cocaine and marijuana—but neither tour has a testing procedure in place to detect any kind of illegal drug, recreational or otherwise. USGA executive director David Fay says he not only has no comment about the USGA's position on steroids, but he won't comment on whether the subject has even come up in the organization's policy meetings.
Still, some players believe performance-enhancing drugs should not only be specifically banned, but that the professional tours should test for them every week. "I've been telling the tour for more than a year that we've got to do something about this," says Price, a critic of the increasing dominance of power in the pro game. "There's no doubt it's cheating. We should be doing something—testing—for this before we are made to do something. Golf should never, ever get to where some of the other sports are, getting pulled in front of the Senate for hearings. We should be showing people how clean we really are."
David Toms says drug testing hasn't been brought before the PGA Tour Policy Board in the 2½ years he has been on that committee, which leads him to believe players don't consider it a competitive issue. Still, he is in favor of random testing, if necessary. "I'm not sure if there's anything you could take that would enhance performance, but steroids would be something we could not tolerate out here," says Toms, who was 107th in driving distance in 2005. "If there's a lot of speculation about it and the commissioner thinks we need to do something about it just to show that we don't have a problem, I would be all for [testing]. I wouldn't have a problem being tested myself, and I don't know of anyone else who would have a problem."
Frazar says he'd be in favor of random testing with one qualification—that the tests the tour used could differentiate between steroids prescribed for medical reasons and those used for performance enhancement. "I guess I'm a steroid user right now," says Frazar. "I'm on a steroid for my asthma. Would that test me positive?"
Building a comprehensive drug-testing system such as the ones used by the Olympic sports has its own set of complications—deciding what drugs to ban, the logistics of testing at tournaments around the United States and keeping the results confidential are just a few—but experts ask why organized golf hasn't at least addressed the subject. "In this day and age, with everything we know about performance-enhancing drugs, every sport should have rules about them," contends Wadler, who is on the World Anti-Doping Agency's prohibited-substance list committee. "Fair play is critical, and protecting the health of athletes is critical. Not having rules is just arcane."
Professional baseball, football and basketball have drug-testing rules built into their agreements between the players' unions and the league. In individual sports such as track and tennis the international federations running the sport have devised Olympic-style anti-doping codes with stiff penalties. The International Tennis Federation imposes a two-year ban for first-time steroid offenders and a lifetime ban for second offenses. In all cases, athletes in those sports are required to submit to random drug tests.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem says the tour's conduct rules—and the tradition of players policing themselves when it comes to those rules—have been a sufficient deterrent to this point, but the tour would not hesitate to incorporate a random drug-testing program if it had evidence of a pattern of use by players. "I don't think it is naive to think our players follow the rules," says Finchem. "Maybe there are doctors who would say that steroids would help a player hit a golf ball farther. We could debate that, and we could debate that the side effects might hurt a player other ways. I don't go there. We have a rule, and we expect players to follow it. If we have credible evidence to think that a player was taking them, we would consider taking other measures. Players have been fined and suspended for other conduct that was unbecoming a professional, and we wouldn't hesitate to do that in this case."
In a statement to Golf World, the LPGA said it has no evidence any of its players use performance-enhancing drugs, nor any concrete evidence that those drugs could compromise the integrity of the competition. However, because of the overall concern about drug use in sports, the tour is researching the possible implementation of a steroid-testing policy.
Congress could motivate golf's governing bodies if it follows through on legislation to impose steroid-testing rules on the major professional sports leagues. The bill, co-sponsored by Arizona Sen. John McCain and Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning, comes in the wake of Major League Baseball's slow response to a series of Congressional hearings and research reports that revealed widespread steroid use in that sport, and would require baseball, football, basketball and hockey to have Olympic-level testing programs. (Major League Baseball announced last week it has increased the penalties for positive steroid tests to 50 games for a first offense, 100 for a second and a lifetime ban for a third.) Professional golf hasn't been included under that blanket, but the PGA Tour says it is prepared to adopt a drug-testing policy should Congress require one.
"The speculation about steroids in golf isn't surprising," says Finchem. "There is so much focus on steroids in other sports. There's an influx of more athleticism in our sport, and the workout regimens our players are undergoing. And there's a focus on the increased distance players are hitting the ball. That's what it is—speculation. We rely on our athletes to call the rules on themselves. We have a long tradition of players following the rules, even when some of the rules are odd." And if they don't? "We'd [test] aggressively, efficiently and in a way that would be effective."