View From the Bunker
Are performance enhancing drugs being used by pro golfers?
This was probably not what Tim Finchem had in mind when he said one of his goals as PGA Tour commissioner was to have golf mentioned in the same breath with football, basketball and baseball -- the dominant sports in the United States. All four made headlines last week, not for athletic achievement but rather less admirable human activity: steroid use, game-fixing and the brutal abuse of dogs. It was not a good week for sports, and it provided a sobering reminder of how fragile reputation is for both the games we love and the athletes who play them.
Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons was indicted on federal charges for his alleged involvement in a dog-fighting ring and the cruelty detailed in the court papers was appalling. Tim Donaghy resigned as an NBA referee after the FBI said he bet on basketball games, including ones in which he officiated. Barry Bonds moved within two home runs of tying Hank Aaron's all-time record, lighting up sports talk radio with discussions about his possible steroid use. And Gary Player, a member of (and spokesman for) the World Golf Hall of Fame, told reporters he knows a professional golfer who has used performance-enhancing drugs.
The issue here is trust. Fans need to believe in the integrity of the games they watch and the athletes they root for. At one time the biggest sport in New York City was college basketball. Doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden were the most coveted ticket in town. But when four city schools were caught in a point-shaving scandal in 1951 -- including the CCNY squad that won both the 1950 NIT and NCAA -- trust was lost and the college game in the city never returned to the same level. Just note all the empty seats each year when Madison Square Garden hosts the NIT.
Player probably should not have said what he said. Teasing without providing names casts too wide a net over the game. That said, given the age in which we live, it would be more surprising if no professional golfer had ever tried steroids than to find out a few had. And the likely culprits are marginal players just trying to hang on and not the stars whose skills have already earned them a very comfortable living.
Think of the players who have been caught since baseball started testing. The guys who were caught are players such as Guillermo Mota of the Mets, a mid-tier reliever, and not Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, one of the best ever. A cheater in golf is most likely not a star but a wannabe star. The stars have too much to lose. The wannabes have too much to gain.
One of the best marketing tools golf has is the image of the game and its players. The police blotter is sparse. There is no dog fighting, point shaving or significant suspicion of drug use. But why let even the hint of hanky-panky exist?
The LPGA begins drug testing in 2008. The men's tours should also. They should adopt International Olympic Committee testing methods golf would have to follow if it were an Olympic sport. It's not a matter of questioning the integrity of the players. It's a matter of ensuring the trust of the fans. Once lost, it is hard to regain.