July 1, 2007

A Drug-Testing Policy: Just Do It

No news is still news on the PGA Tour, particularly when it involves an issue as ambiguous as drug testing. When an Associated Press reporter asked Tim Finchem about the tour's lack of a policy or procedure two weeks ago in Hartford, the commissioner gave the guy a straight answer, even if it wasn't a good one. "We don't have a rule on performance-enhancing drugs," Finchem replied. "We never [have]. We're getting close on that. I suspect we'll have more to say about it later this summer."

It wasn't exactly stop-the-presses material, yet Finchem's comments got some media play because it wasn't quite the stiff-arm he had given the subject at the Players, when he leaned on the golfers-police-themselves crutch to justify the tour's reluctance to take action. Any wire story with the words "drug" and "testing" in the first paragraph is going to get picked up, which is one of several reasons why PGA Tour headquarters needs to stop slow-playing the matter and formalize a program sooner instead of later.

We're talking about a necessary evil in today's pro-sports culture: a responsible precaution that sends an assertive message and goes one step further in preserving the integrity of the competition. We can't assume anything these days, certainly not the notion that a bunch of ultrasuccessful, highly motivated men would never consider anything that might mean two or three fewer strokes at tournaments where first place is paying in excess of $1 million.

If you're an elementary-school principal and you need to hire someone to teach first grade, one candidate may stand out above all the others. Still, you do a background check. "Look around this place," tour veteran Olin Browne said on a crowded practice green in Hartford. "You tell me, does it look like we have a drug problem?"

Even the brightest, most likable guys suffer from an occasional case of naiveté. Baseball's steroids scandal has conned many into thinking the only performance-enhancing drugs worth investigating are the ones that build muscle and reduce injury time. Golf, however, is a very different animal. Having used several different medications in recent years to treat a diagnosed case of attention-deficit disorder, I can attest to the effects these drugs might impart on a player's ability to deal with concentration lapses and pressure situations.

Beta blockers also could serve the same valuable purpose. I remember writing a story several years back on whether long putters should be banned. Ernie Els was among the big names who favored their ouster. "Take a tablet if you can't handle it," Els quipped, referring to those whose jangled nerves have forced them to alternative measures on the four-footers. It was a telling comment, a bit humorous in its suggestiveness, although one senses the Big Easy wasn't looking for as many chuckles as he might have gotten.

The tour has always been a see-no-evil, fear-no-evil operation, relying on the character of its constituency and the game's high code of honor to deflect progressive stands such as drug or equipment testing. In fact, the foot-dragging on this issue bears a startling resemblance to the long charade that preceded the implementation of a driver test in 2004. By now you would think tour officials would understand the difference between a deterrent and an indictment.

Maybe the image-conscious tour sees drug testing as a sign of weakness: Why stoop to collect urine samples and establish penalties like other sports, which have such obvious problems? One can see how the lack of a policy might actually encourage struggling players to consider their medicinal options, the rationalization being that if it isn't illegal, no rule has been broken. It's also worth wondering whether the tour even cares if a guy who can't handle it takes a tablet. The game is hard enough, right? If mother's little helper turns a 71 into a 68, you shake the guy's hand and ask him for his psychiatrist's phone number.

The flip side, of course, makes a lot more sense. You establish a policy because it is the right thing to do, because you're the PGA Tour, where life is good and performance aids haven't been an issue, but you want to keep a good thing going. Because the old ounce-of-prevention edict can be worth a ton of cure, even when you're righteously healthy. Because it is a hard game and you don't want to make it any easier for those who seek an illicit shortcut.

Because that high code of honor runs deeper than the premise that a golfer will call a penalty on himself even when no one else saw an infraction. And yes, you establish a policy because Tiger Woods said so. "I don't know when we could get that implemented," Woods said last summer. "Tomorrow would be fine with me."

Almost a year later, it's about time we slap two strokes on the tour for slow play.