Golf and Steroids

Matthew Rudy pens an excellent and downright stunning Golf World feature analyzing the possibility of steroids in golf. Stunning, in part because of the certainty experts have that players are using steroids, but mostly it's a jaw-dropper because of the ho-hum, naive and downright bizarre responses from certain governing body.

It's easy to peg the explosive distance gains in professional golf to a familiar set of theories: supercharged modern equipment, improved agronomy and sophisticated workouts by dedicated athletes. No one in the preservation-of-the-game versus unfettered-technology debate disputes these factors. But could golfers also be getting an assist from something else?
Yes, and why is the door open to steroid usage? Could lax rules on modern equipment fitting offer ususually juicy benefits for those with certain clubhead speeds? Could fault equipment regulation have shifted the playing focus from players developing a balanced game to a power-focused style?

After six months of research, Golf World has not turned up a documented case of steroid abuse on golf's major tours.

Research reportedly entailed photo analysis of LPGAers once known for their peach-fuzzed lips suddenly requiring shaving, and a thorough search of PGA Tour lockers for Clearasil and bras (or Manzeers?). John Daly and Phil Mickelson's lockers were skipped for obvious reasons.

Sorry, just trying to keep it light.

Still, the rampant use of steroids in other sports and the insistence of medical experts that steroids can enhance performance lead some to believe steroids will inevitably encroach upon pro golf, probably first among young amateurs and developmental pros. Those concerned about the matter suggested that golf's governing bodies address such a possibility by enacting more clear rules and drug testing now.
"I haven't heard any talk about steroids in golf, but no sport is immune to it," says Dr. Gary Wadler, a clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "Any component of strength is going to be enhanced by taking them. If a golfer can benefit from added strength, steroids are going to be a benefit in that regard."

Naturally, statements like that mean golf will need at least a 3-year study to disprove an expert like Wadler. 

The average driving distance on the men's tour has increased almost 30 yards since 1980, but that gain has been attributed mostly to equipment advances, not chemistry.

Get Rudy some talking points!  They're working out more, Matthew. Oh, and there's lots more roll than the old days when before three-row irrigation systems.

Run the numbers, though, and it's easy to see why a chemical "helper" might be enticing for a player who has hit the wall in terms of adding distance conventionally, through a combination of exercise and finely tuned equipment. On a launch monitor, each additional mile per hour of clubhead speed is worth roughly two yards of carry. If the average male tour player swinging 118 miles per hour with the driver added 10 percent more speed, he could carry the ball nearly 25 more yards. For an LPGA player swinging at 95 mph, that means a gain of almost 20 yards.


Here's where it starts to get scary, or sad, or just plain pathetic:


"If I had 5 percent more clubhead speed, I'd still be playing 30 tournaments," says [Nick] Price, who averaged 282.6 yards in 2005. "Let's face it. Unless you can hit the ball 310 yards now, you will never be No. 1 in the world, and that's a sad state of affairs. If I'm playing with a college kid and he's hitting it 280, I tell him he has to find more. But what if he's maxed out his power? The message we're sending him leaves the door open for him to try something else to find the power he needs."

And why is this message being sent? Ah yes, right, so that grown men can continue their equipment shopping addiction unfettered by silly rules.

In golf, the risk of detection is almost zero. No professional tour -- or the USGA -- has specific language in its rules prohibiting performance-enhancing substances. 

But surely the USGA, which this year made a big fuss about updating its gender reassignment policy to keep up with the International Olympic Committee, is on top of this to remain IOC-consistent, right?

USGA executive director David Fay says he not only has no comment about the USGA's position on steroids, but he won't comment on whether the subject has even come up in the organization's policy meetings.

That's our David. Inconsistent as ever.  

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem says the tour's conduct rules -- and the tradition of players policing themselves when it comes to those rules -- have been a sufficient deterrent to this point, but the tour would not hesitate to incorporate a random drug-testing program if it had evidence of a pattern of use by players. "I don't think it is naive to think our players follow the rules," says Finchem.

I do! Self-policing on steroids? What are guys supposed to do, stick a cup in front of a player when he's at the urinal?

"Maybe there are doctors who would say that steroids would help a player hit a golf ball farther. We could debate that, and we could debate that the side effects might hurt a player other ways. I don't go there. We have a rule, and we expect players to follow it.

Uh, no, you don't have a rule or testing.

"If we have credible evidence to think that a player was taking them, we would consider taking other measures. Players have been fined and suspended for other conduct that was unbecoming a professional, and we wouldn't hesitate to do that in this case."

Oh, so conduct unbecoming a professional. But there's no testing, so what are they unbecoming of if you can't prove they're unbecoming?

You know, you wouldn't be in this mess if they hadn't scrapped the optimization...ah, forget it.