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Gary, Steroids, and Golf

Jul. 26, 2007     By     Comments (14)

Gary Player becomes the latest past champion to assume the position of soap box philosopher.

Thrash TalkPerhaps the only thing more tedious than watching 43 rehashes of the Van de Velde incident is listening to an old lion reminding himself he can still roar. Gary Player's comments on performance-enhancing drug use on the professional golf tours certainly got a rise out of the news media. And although an exciting finish to a thrilling championship happily drowned out The Black Knight's clatter, I think the issue is worth a closer look.

Barry Bonds is about to break baseball's most revered record, and although nobody's willing to come out and say it, the baseball world is ready to collectively toss its cookies. The obvious infiltration of performance-enhancing drugs, including anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and other hormonal supplements (we'll refer to it collectively as "juice") into baseball, and the power surge it has caused in the game is considered by most as open cheating. So in golf, a sport where the honor and integrity of competitors are often cited as the most valued asset, it is perhaps not unusual that it has taken so long for someone to broach the issue of "juicing" among touring professionals.

But the parallels between golf and baseball are obvious. Just as in baseball, golf is in the midst of a 10-year surge in power. Just as baseball spectators have witnessed a transformation from generally ordinary physiques of players in the 1960s and 70s to the chiseled, muscled forms of today, golf has also transformed from "fat Jack" and professionals smoking on putting greens to athletic looking pros in form-fitting clothing more resembling an NFL cornerback than Billy Casper. OK, golf still has a few smokers and Tim Herron, but you get the picture.

The number one female golfer in the world for the last several years was Annika, and her transformation from a petite, slender woman in the early 90s to someone more resembling Martina Navratilova in her prime is tough to ignore. The woman can do 15 one-arm pull ups, and I can tell you from my days in the military that the percentage of women - in a young, fit population in the Air Force, mind you - who can do even two or three two-hand pull ups is safely in the single digits.

So what's going on here? Is Gary Player right?

Golf, like all major sports, is both more competitive and lucrative than ever before. The reason we see so many more fit, athletic players is that today's pro is looking for any possible edge on the competition. And for good reason. While as recently as 25 or 30 years ago, professional athletes in most sports had regular jobs in the offseason, if you can be successful at the highest levels in any sport today, including golf, you can be set up for life after only a few years of work. The temptation to use juice is therefore understandable, and there is no question that some have probably fallen prey to that temptation.

So certainly, in this climate, routine testing for performance-enhancing drugs on all major tours is essential. Not only does juicing offend our basic sensibility about fairness and honor - important in life and all sport, not only golf - it is, in most countries, illegal, and in almost every case potentially harmful to the athlete, as well as the thousands of would-be athletes of all ages and persuasions who may be taking their cues from the pros. There is absolutely no place for performance-enhancing drugs in any sport.

For these reasons, I don't really have any quarrel with anything Gary Player said, other than the fact that he picked the wrong time and the wrong place to say it. I suppose Player was only responding to questions asked of him, but the manner in which he went about answering it, complete with the awkward, gossipy tidbit about knowing one such offending pro but having taken an oath not to tell, certainly didn't accomplish anything for the game, with the exception of a bit more ink on tabloid sports pages. Right on the eve of the game's oldest and most prestigious championship. Just the sort of thing our honorable, traditional game needs, eh?

Commentary like this from golf's elder statesmen is growing more common and more intolerable by the day. Every time we turn around, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are saying something negative about the modern ball going too far, or the USGA letting the game down, or our American players not having enough competitive fire to beat Tiger or win the Ryder Cup. While golf is a sport which honors tradition and the opinions of past champions, I honestly believe that what we are getting from the Big Three and others among golf's prominent seasoned citizens is outright harmful to our sport.

Yes, widespread cheating on professional golf tours could be catastrophic to the game, too, but we're clearly not at that point yet. I have no statistics to back this up, but I am relatively certain that the vast majority of golfers today owe their cut physiques to hard work, not anything from a bottle or syringe. A sensible testing policy will all but eliminate doping as a serious threat to golf, and we certainly don't need any kiss and tell stories to nudge us into action. At least I hope we don't.

What is needed in golf today is not the rantings of past champions on the playing style or training habits of a miniscule fraction of the golf world. What would be far better are proactive efforts to increase participation in the game, and make it more fun and accessible.

Can anyone remember an older generation of athletes in any sport coming out and saying, "you know, we played pretty well in my day, but today's players could run circles around us." Almost never. Becoming a champion in any sport requires a level of confidence - perhaps outright arrogance - that makes it hard to accept the realities of growing old and watching someone better come along. While I spare nothing in my respect for the talents and achievements of great golfers throughout history, as commentators on the modern game, they leave much to be desired.

We have more news outlets today than anytime in history, and an electronic platform for the dissemination of information that was the stuff of science fiction only a couple of decades ago. So there are many people looking for a quote, a sound byte, a breaking story. Furthermore, it has been said that the winners always get to write the history books, so it is no surprise that our past champions will always have a voice.

It would do all of us - and the game - quite a bit of good if they'd think a bit more about how they use this privilege.

Discussion

  1. In thinking about the PED issue in golf, a thought occurred to me. Players openly cheat in other sports - travelling (et al) in basketball is common, football is well known for "it's only cheating if you get caught," and baseball fans almost revere the old junk-ballers and quickly forgive those with corked bats.

    It's not the same in golf - I do believe the stigma of "cheating" is big, and it prevents a lot of people from trying out PEDs. Currently, "cheating" in this light would be using anything chemical for the primary purpose of gaining a competitive advantage.

    But put out a list of banned substances A through X and suddenly it's a lot easier to rationalize cheating. One simply has to say to himself "Hey, substance Z isn't on the list. I'm not cheating."

    I'm glad the PGA Tour - and other tours around the world - are forging a drug policy. I don't think it will be easy, and I wish them the best of luck. Defining that line between what's "legal" (aspirin? nicotine?) and what's not (steroids? cortisone?) is one tough job. Just a few months ago I was prescribed a weak steroid for laryngitis - would I have tested positive for something?

    Gary Player's actions, as I said on the podcast, were akin to a schoolyard weenie shouting "neener neener neener, I know a secret." If you took an oath, why cast suspicion on everyone? Just shut your yap and keep it to yourself. I too am tired of these old guys constantly hogging the spotlight, and Gary Player was all too eager to have that question asked so he could thrust himself back into it. Perhaps he too was tired of hearing about Jean Van de Velde. ::sigh::

    Perhaps someone should ask Gary Player about his loony theories on wooden clubs and the many ways in which he may have cheated at the game he so professes to love but fails to protect by outing a cheater (see here, here, and here). Better yet, let's just not ask him anything anymore.

  2. teeitup says:

    The problem here is with the notion of cheating. It is suggested here that performance enhancing drugs is an issue. Coffee is a drug, Diet Coke is a neurotoxin which alters body chemistry, Sugar changes body chemistry as does booze. Advil does, antibiotics do and so on. Everything you ingest changes body chemistry. Is this the definition that constitutes cheating - ingestion? If you use anything to enhance your natural state are you cheating - vitamins? How about asking a Dr. to repair a "naturally occurring defect" in your body? How about laser surgery for the eyes - if you get 20-20 you okay but if you "improve" your vision they your in trouble. It is said that Ted Williams had superior vision - cheating?

    There is also a notion that steroids can cause adverse reactions and long term trouble. Ask Sean Elliot and Alonzo Mourning about the long term effects of taking perfectly "legal" anti inflammatory medication.

    Is the idea of cheating with some chemical or another a problem because all athletes can't or aren't using them? What if we say, all athletes can do what they want, what is the problem with this? Unfair advantage is often cited. Is it fair that one athlete as the DNA to play a sport professionally for 20 years while another can't play two due to a DNA quirk? This notion of fairness is misguided here. These are professional athletes whose purpose is to entertain and sell goods and services. More entertaining is better for everyone. What about "cheating" at a brewery by using enhancing chemicals? We somehow think sports are something "pure" and the "integrity of the game" is a reason for making athletes into conforming robots with all kinds of arbitrary restrictions related to what they can ingest, who they can interact with, what clothes they can wear.

    The notion of Bonds "cheating" is laughable. The league was dead before the "long ball" came back. ESPN doesn't show highlights each week of walks leading to runs, they show home runs. The league was resurrected from the dead by the long ball, smaller parks (cheating?) juiced ball (cheating?) pitchers only throwing fast balls (cheating?). All of this lead to more fans more money - yet folks decry this. Folks who don't play the game by the way and have never suffered a major injury of some kind that threated a career. I guarantee that if you suffered and injury of any kind, and a treatment that was "illegal" would resolve the problem you'd try it in a second.

    I'm not sure I'm comfortable with some agency or government official telling me - by using athletes as an example, that I can't "take" something that will improve my existence. Steroids are illegal to have without a prescription, not illegal. But soon vitamins are going to be illegal without a prescription (do the research here) and is that "fair?" The atmosphere has less oxygen then it had 20 years ago, the water we drink is filled with estrogen producing chemicals (do the research) and a myriad of other factors reduce naturally occurring steroid production in the body - is it fair that athletes have suck it up and just deal with these destructive elements for some confused notion of "fair play?" Athletes are used an example, it's horrible but it's a fact. When athletes are restricted from something (all 10000 of them) the entire population feels the reverberating effect.

    Case in point. The Baltimore pitcher who died. It was said he died form performance enhancing drugs - ephedrine. It was not mentioned that he as a diet coke addict - a neuron toxin (do the research). Immediately there were outcries to ban this dangerous substance. Yet the proof was "he had it in his locker so that must have done it." A perfectly effective and safe supplement was nearly banned - a rational Utah judge tossed the notion out because there as no proof.

    The most common "enhancers" on the PGA tour beta blockers and marijuana. These are used to calm the system and reduce anxiety. So is the "Q link" pendant and the bi-metal bracelets. So, if we ban beta blockers then we must ban pendants because they too are used to enhance performance.

    Nothing is "fair" things just are. Golf is an entertainment game, and nothing more. Jack is not a god, Tiger is not a role model, and if all the golfers are suddenly asked to pee in a cup once a week to prove they are playing fair I won't sleep any better at all.

  3. The Nephew says:

    While "cheating" may be common in other sports, I don't think the examples cited above and PEDs constitute an apples to apples comparison.

    Traveling, stealing signs, and the like are things that happen within the context of the game. Steroid use happens in the context of shady laboratories, mail order pharmacies, and bathroom stalls - off the field of play, outside the arena of competition, and invisible to all but blood and urine tests (most of them anyway) and those with a discerning eye for enlraged craniums. Traveling can be caught by a refereee (providing he's not on the take) - steroid use can only be caught by chemist. And they don't belong on the field.

    Fans have long memories and one of the things that make sports great is the respect for the history of the game. Most baseball fans nationwide despise Sammy Sosa - for his suspected steroid use, for his corked bat, and for his sudden failure to remember how to speak English when it was really time for him to step up to the plate. Mark McGwire - statistically one of the greatest power hitters ever even before steroids crept into his game - will likely never gain entrance to Cooperstown without buying a tickey thanks to his ties to steroids. Rafael Palmiero became only the third man in Major League history to amass both 3000 hits and 500 home runs; days later a positive PED test effectively ended his career.

    Meanwhile ball doctors such as Gaylord Perry, Jay Howell, and Kenny Rogers will always carry a black mark on their respective records. Have we already forgotten the rancor surrounding the "clump of dirt" on Rogers' pitching hand last October?

    And now the ultimate indignity: sometime in the next couple of weeks Barry Bonds - the poster boy for the PED epidemic in sports - will break sports' most hallowed record. The sad thing is that Bonds would have gone down as one the game's all-time greats without the juice. But allegedly, when he saw the praise and attention heaped upon the aforementioned McGwire and Sosa during the 1998 season, the ever insecure and me-centric Bonds turned to chemistry to vault himself to the next level. Ironically, his choice has only resulted in him being further despised everywhere but San Francisco.

    Spare me the canned arguments please. No, steroids does not give you the hand-eye coordination to hit a ball. But if you already have that talent it will sure help you hit it farther than before. No, baseball (through its own stupidity) did not have a steroid policy per se. But that does not make them any less illegal. As I see it, the NFL does not have a specific policy against slamming animals to the ground in an attempt to kill them, but that doesn't seem to be helping Michael Vick much right now.

    But this forum is not for baseball discussion, it's about golf. And golf is awfully lucky right now. It's biggest problem is not that its biggest scoundrel is about to break an all-time record, nor is it that one of its officials has been fixing games, nor is it that one of its most recognizable stars electrouctes puppies, nor is it that one of its stars murdered his family in a potentially steroid fueled rage, nor is it that a new player is elimated from the premier event after each round thanks to doping allegations.

    Rather, the problem discussed here is that one of the games all-time greats spoke up about what could be a hidden epidemic in the game right now - similar to what MLB turned a blind eye to some 10 years ago. Perhaps the PGA should take Players' words seriously and move swiftly to protect the game against a chemical revolution. I'd hate to see the PGA repeat the mistakes that MLB has made.

  4. Rather, the problem discussed here is that one of the games all-time greats spoke up about what could be a hidden epidemic in the game right now - similar to what MLB turned a blind eye to some 10 years ago. Perhaps the PGA should take Players' words seriously and move swiftly to protect the game against a chemical revolution. I'd hate to see the PGA repeat the mistakes that MLB has made.

    Virtually every major Tour is moving in that direction, and Tim Finchem promised the PGA Tour would have a policy in place by the end of the year, IIRC. Knowing that, Gary's comments are still incredibly childish, ill-timed, and unnecessarily provocative.

    And I'll assume you meant the PGA Tour and not the PGA, of course.

  5. The Nephew says:

    Yes, I did mean the Tour. Thanks for correcting me. That slip of the keyboard in my first comment gives a little insite into my background - I know a lot about baseball and very little about golf.

    Although the PGA itself has a large responsibility in this matter as well. The players themselves ought to have enough respect for the integrity of game to be cooperative in its policing. Part of the reason that MLB was so slow to react to its own pharmaceutical epidemic was that the MLBPA stonewalled the league on the issue for so many years.

    And while it's encouraging to know that the Tour likely will have a policy in place before long, MLB's experience has shown that PED policy and enforcement is a learning process and that the initial policy may be lacking in some areas. I'm hopeful that the Tour getting involved now will prevent a Bonds/McGwire/Sosa/Palmiero like quagmire that will drag the game down into the muck with the rest of its professional sports brethren.

    That said, I don't dispute the fact that Player utilized poor judgement (or no judgement) in making those comments - especially in making them when he did. But if it's at all helpful in keeping the game from scandal then in my opinion the end justifies the means.

  6. JP says:

    The issue of 'juice' in sports is one of those things that seems simple on the surface, but gets more and more complicated the closer you look at it. Erik hinted at some of the relevant issues. One of the toughest involves the basic definition. Ok, so anabolic steroids, which have the effect of building almost inhuman muscle mass, are easy to classify as wrong. But how about stimulants, from the more obvious prescription variety (amphetamines), to more common ones such as caffeine and nicotine? Caffeine has very, very similar pharmacologic effects to cocaine; the main difference is the typical dosages used.

    Many musicians take beta blockers, drugs initially designed for and still used for lowering blood pressure. They have the side benefit of calming 'nerves' and decreasing tremors and jitters...concert musicians use them because they play more fluidly and accurately with beta blockers on board. I have heard some golfers have used them to combat the yips.

    Most of what people think of when they speak about 'steroids' or 'juice' are those drugs which help the user build muscle mass. These include anabolic steroids and hormones in the growth hormone cascade. These drugs are extremely dangerous, because (simplifying here) they cause many things in the body to 'grow,' not just muscles. They speed recovery from injury, but may also increase susceptibility to injury. It hardly needs to be said that the use of these sorts of drugs by children is highly dangerous, and for me this is the most compelling reason for making the use and distribution of these drugs illegal and for eradicating them from sports.

    Golfers do cheat, of course, in ways other than juicing. Erik linked articles about Gary Player; Player's trick of tamping down rough grass with a wood and then 'changing his mind' and playing an iron isn't something exclusive to him, I don't think. I saw on TV a similar ploy by Paul Azinger that I believe had to be deliberate cheating. He had a lie in medium to long but whispy rough. He had a short to middle iron, and would sole the club behind the ball and take 'practice' back swings, in which he would be brushing down the grass behind the ball. It looked like cheating because he must have done it 15-20 times, and was definitely pushing the grass down in the process. His preshot routine from the fairway had no such practice backswings.

    While most people wouldn't consider things like stealing signs in baseball as cheating in the same way as using juice, I know Erik's point: on some level, it's all the same.

    It's not a perfect world, and we'll never eradicate cheating. But we can make sure that the most dangerous forms are banished, and, when someone does manage to sneak past the radar that they are severely punished.

  7. Right now, the idea of "cheating" via drugs is vague enough to be fairly effective: golfers know that if a drug is not prescribed to you but has performance-enhancing effects, it's not really on the up-and-up.

    I said that if a list of banned substances was put out, players could rationalize the continued use of substances not on the list.

    To curtail such thinking, perhaps the Tour's policy could include the ability to add substances to the list and penalize players after the fact and on a case-by-case basis within, say, six months to avoid nonsensical situations. That way, if MiraclePED isn't on the list but it's known to be a performance-enhancing drug, players will still not want to take the drug because they could have their pension stripped, their Tour card taken away, etc. if the drug is later added to the list.

    This could be also be done by listing "any other drug deemed to be performance-enhancing and without a valid medical prescription and purpose" in the banned substance list.

    I would agree with anyone who says that such legislation or such a rule is murky at best, but the whole "drug-testing" scene is murky at best, particularly without bloodwork.

    I haven't given this idea much thought, but it came to me and I wanted to jot it down.

  8. It is suggested here that performance enhancing drugs is an issue. Coffee is a drug, Diet Coke is a neurotoxin which alters body chemistry, Sugar changes body chemistry as does booze. Advil does, antibiotics do and so on. Everything you ingest changes body chemistry. Is this the definition that constitutes cheating - ingestion?

    No - it seems you're the only person who is failing to apply common sense here. By your logic, food lets us live, and we certainly perform in an enhanced way when alive versus when dead, right? :-P

    Application of a little common sense is necessary or discussion is meaningless.

    I'm not sure I'm comfortable with some agency or government official telling me - by using athletes as an example, that I can't "take" something that will improve my existence.

    They're not. I took steroids (prednisone) recently to clear up my laryngitis. If I'm not competing in a sport, then I'd be stupid - as would you - to follow rules that don't apply to you to help you overcome problems.

    Besides, as you say, steroids are illegal without a prescription, as are many of the PEDs being discussed. Did Barry Bonds have a heart transplant that necessitated the use of steroids? Is HGH ever really prescribed to someone healthy enough to play a professional sport? No.

    You keep telling people to "do the research," but frankly, you're coming off as a bit of a loon and a conspiracy theorist. I have a degree in medicinal chemistry and JP is a medical doctor.

    I just read a study that said diet has no effect on cancer. None whatsoever. It's as credible as the reports I read years ago that said drinking green tee reduces the chances of getting cancer, and all they show is how little we know about all of cancer's forms and causes.

    At least you stopped short of lecturing us about chemtrails.

    Case in point. The Baltimore pitcher who died. It was said he died form performance enhancing drugs - ephedrine. It was not mentioned that he as a diet coke addict - a neuron toxin (do the research). Immediately there were outcries to ban this dangerous substance. Yet the proof was "he had it in his locker so that must have done it." A perfectly effective and safe supplement was nearly banned - a rational Utah judge tossed the notion out because there as no proof.

    Do your own research. The Utah judge's decision was overturned and eventually the U.S. Supreme court decided not to even hear the later appeal. Ephedra is similar in structure to amphetamine and methamphetamine. It's no wonder it helps you lose weight - you become a tweaker.

    It also wasn't alleged he was using it simply because it was in his locker. His wife admitted to his use (hence her lawsuit) of the drug. "Do your research."

    The most common "enhancers" on the PGA tour beta blockers and marijuana.

    Okay, now you're just pulling things from your keister.

    It should be noted the beta blocker discussion is 15 years old. Nick Price was prescribed them for a heart condition and actively sought to find alternatives because he felt he couldn't play good golf while on them.

    And hey, while we're in the process of making unsubstantiated claims and, you know, just making stuff up, yeah, those Q-Link necklaces really work! And those Trion:Z bracelets too! Yeah! Oh, and Feng-Shui, man, if your golf bag is not optimized to maximize the good energy, you're leaving three shots per round out on the course!

  9. Sandsave1952 says:

    Hey! I just saw Gary Player's reaction to lipping out his sand shot from the greenside bunker at the Senior Open Championship. Did that look like "roid rage" to you guys?

  10. JP says:

    The Nephew admits that he knows much more about baseball than golf, and draws a comparison between the two sports. He makes excellent observations...I have never thought that there were any revered records in golf that could be broken or trivialized by juiced up golfers, since performance/component stats in golf aren't really studied, and only wins seem to matter. But thinking about it, I guess it is possible that you could have a super-juiced player obtain enough benefits to be able to win more, provided not everyone was equally juiced.

    Golf is lucky that the game hasn't been tainted, and likely won't, now that a testing policy seems iminent.

  11. DLT says:

    Some years ago, I had the chance to speak with Gary Player at his host's home during the old tour stop at Pleasant Valley in Sutton, MA. I'd watched him play some holes and commented on one of his shots. He was gracious, warm and genuine. The kind of person you know is a straight-arrow down to his toes.

    So, while you can complain about his style, he's earned the right to speak out. I'm sure substance abuse in golf is lower than in most sports, but the modern emphasis on training and power has undoubtedly brought with it the temptation to gain an edge.

    What I believe is being overlooked in this discussion is that modern equipment is throwing off the balance of skills required to complete. More than ever, it's a putting contest on tour, and I for one, think this is a shame. Metal woods, hybrids, 'game improvement irons', square grooves, ball technology, all act to reduce the ball-striking skill required to compete on tour. In baseball, when pitching began to dominate too much in the early 70's, they lowered the mound. Right now, the integrity of the game is being compromised. Modern equipment is supposed to make the game more enjoyable for the average player. But it does not. It simply changes expectations. Players simply expect better misses.

    From my teens until a few years ago, I played Hogan Apex PCs, and I regret to say I've gone to the dark side with a set of Titleist 735s. These are great clubs, but they do have the effect of cutting out the highs and lows. Some of the joy of hitting a really great shot is lost, as is much of the ability to shape shots. This can't be a good thing for the game, especially at the highest level. Hogan is not revered for his putting after all. The game has been seduced by Dr. Feelgood.

  12. So, while you can complain about his style, he's earned the right to speak out.

    I don't think anyone here is denying that.

    What I believe is being overlooked in this discussion is that modern equipment is throwing off the balance of skills required to complete. More than ever, it's a putting contest on tour, and I for one, think this is a shame.

    I suspect you're going on a hunch here without any actual evidence of this. Greens in regulation is still a larger determinant in success than putting, and Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones before him both complained or commented on how large a role putting played in championship golf. Putting has always been a big part of golf.

    Though I appreciate your effort to turn the comment thread on this article into an equipment debate, I'm not going to allow it. Please take that discussion elsewhere - the discussion here is on the article above.

  13. JP Bouffard says:

    I'm going to jump in here...I would agree with Erik that I don't think you've made a case as to why equipment changes are relevant to Player's comments on PEDs or on the general issue of PEDs in golf. Maybe you can explain it better...do you mean that if modern equipment leveled the playing field for pros, they'd be more tempted to use PEDs, in order to get an edge?

    The idea that better equipment "levels the playing field" is interesting to me. Pros like Nicklaus have complained about this, and say that this leveling brings the journeyman pro closer to the top pro, making it harder for the best players to really distinguish themselves. Then, in the next breath, he says modern equipment has increased the gap between pro and amateur. So, equipment technology brings some players closer together, but spreads others farther apart. I don't see the logic in this.

    But that's a discussion for another time, and one I'll likely enter in this column sooner or later.

  1. [... Perhaps the only thing more tedious than watching 43 rehashes of the Van de Velde incident is listening to an old lion reminding himself he can still roar. Gary Player's ...]

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