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 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.