The next few days will be interesting for the PGA Tour’s anti-doping policy, which has been mostly dormant since its creation in 2008. One player has been suspended in just over four years, and even that is a bit of a sordid tale that would have gotten a lot more press had it involved a bigger named golfer. Now, after a story last week mentioned PGA Pro Vijay Singh as a possible user of a banned substance found in a deer antler spray, the tour must hand down a punishment, that we know. In doing this they have to decide if the previous suspension stands as a precedent and how they want their policy to be perceived going forward.
In 2009, Doug Barron was suspended for one year for failing drug tests for testosterone and beta blockers, both of which were prescribed to the golfer by his doctors for medical reasons. The tour drug policy does allow for therapeutic-use exemptions, for which Barron had been denied. The Doug Barron story is an interesting one that, one would think, could have a great deal of influence on how the PGA will react to Singh’s admission.
The other side to this situation is the handling of Champions Tour golfer Mark Calcavecchia, who in August of 2011 had a testimonial video on the website of the company that made the deer antler spray that has been causing so many issues. At the time, the PGA Tour told Calcavecchia the product he was endorsing was considered a banned substance as per the anti-doping program. The endorsement was pulled and there was no further action taken by the tour.
It feels like the PGA Tour is at a crossroads with their anti-doping policy. They reacted swiftly and by the book on Doug Barron, although one could argue in his situation there wasn’t a malicious intent to enhance his performance, rather a mishandling of doctor prescribed medications and how they could be taken as per the policy. Then there is Calcavecchia, who was never caught but certainly admitted to using the deer antler spray, and he was left unpunished.
Singh certainly had the benefit of learning from the Calcavecchia situation, and the tour specifically warned tour golfers about the spray and made it clear it was a banned substance. At the same time, will the tour let golfers off in the future if they are unknowingly, or so they may say, using a substance that is clearly prohibited?
My guess would be that the tour would punish any violation of the anti-doping policy and to the letter of the law that they have written, while that appears it was not the case with Calcavecchia. Whatever free pass he was given, it appears that will not be the case for Singh, nor should it. The punishment, a one year ban for Singh, seems excessive. It seemed like too much for Barron and the punishment doesn’t feel like it fits the crime in the current situation.
The tour also runs the risk, if going light on Vijay, of looking like namby pambys on their anti-doping enforcement. That is a very dangerous position to take in today’s culture of athletes doing whatever they feel necessary to do to rise as high as they can in their respective sports. If golf is to learn anything from baseball, it is better to be proactive rather than reactive on the issue of doping.