PGA Tour does not come out well in Dustin Johnson affair

Tour’s policy on positive tests is at odds with other major sporting organisations

An irony of sorts came on Saturday evening, as Rory McIlroy got the proverbial tap on the shoulder to undergo a mandatory drugs test. That McIlroy, the new poster boy of the sport, should somehow be plucked from the air in a random manner was, by accident or design, a way of portraying the image that golf, at the elite level, had nothing to hide.

As far as McIlroy was concerned, the call – informed as he signed his card after the third round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational – was simply one of those things that are part and parcel of being a professional athlete. He signed a couple of autographs, casually remarked to his father, Gerry, that he would see him shortly, informing him of the mandatory test, and headed off – with a chaperone – to do the business that must be done. No big deal.

For golf's hierarchy, though, it is a big deal – and especially so in light of the "leave of absence" taken by Dustin Johnson, a player who contended in last month's British Open and who was as good as guaranteed a place in the US team for the upcoming Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in September. Not any more obviously, since Johnson jumped before he was pushed in taking his time-out.

The PGA Tour issued a statement that Johnson has taken a "voluntary leave of absence and is not under a suspension" and his management company in a statement claimed he was dealing with "personal challenges" but reported that the player had failed three drug tests – for marijuana in 2009 and for cocaine in 2012 and this year – which was the reason for his taking leave.


The absence of Johnson from the Bridgestone tournament, this coming week's US PGA at Valhalla and for some time down the line was met with a mix of shock and, from those particularly close to him, some sympathy. As Tiger Woods observed, "it's sad that he's got to take a hiatus . . . he's such an enormous talent. It's always tough to see one of your friends struggling like that".

Most articulate

Of all the players, Graeme McDowell – as he tends to be – was probably the most articulate: “”Our drug policy is very clear, we all abide by it. The rumour mill says things. Are they true? Are they not? Who knows? It is very difficult for anyone to speculate. We are talking about an incredibly talented athlete (Johnson), who we hope will be back helping the PGA Tour brand and the game of golf around the world. So, like I say, very difficult to comment on something, I don’t know much about it.

“We have a drug policy and it has to be implanted fairly across the board. Especially with the Olympics on the horizon, we have got to tow the line on a drug point of view like all the other sports do. The PGA Tour control how they handle things, they are an incredibly big brand around the world and they have got to protect their players but their players have got to play fairly as well. So, tough to know what is going down. We all wish Dustin well and hopefully he is back playing our game soon.”

Others weren’t quite so forthcoming as McDowell when asked for comment. For example, Zach Johnson, when asked what he felt about the PGA Tour not announcing disciplinary measures if there were any, replied: “I’m a pretty conservative guy. Policy is policy.”

Equally reticent

For his part,

Phil Mickelson

was equally reticent to comment. “You know, I don’t really want to comment on this issue. It’s kind of a touchy issue, and I’d just rather stay away.”

What is for certain is that the PGA Tour hasn’t, by any means, come out well in the entire Johnson affair. The policy of not announcing positive drug tests – or what sanctions were or weren’t taken – is one that is at odds with other major sporting organisations. Also, there seems to be a line drawn between drugs taken for “recreational” use and those taken for to enhance performance.

The PGA Tour is not required to announce discipline against players found to have used recreational drugs, although speculated that Johnson’s first “leave of absence” came in March 2012 following the WGC-Cadillac Championship when he didn’t play on tour for 90 days until reappearing at the Memorial in late May.

The issue of drugs in golf was raised as far back as 2007 when Gary Player, in the run-up to the British Open at Carnoustie, estimated that up to 10 players at the higher level of the sport were using performance enhancing drugs. Player admitted he had no proof of such drug taking but still claimed it as "a fact" because "one guy" had told him.

‘Having tests’

At the time, Player added: “I’m delighted to see that they’re going to start having tests at random, if that’s what they officially have decided.”

And, as we saw first hand on Saturday evening with McIlroy striding away to undergo a mandatory call of nature, those tests have and do take place. Which is as it should be.

Unlike other major sports, though, golf’s hierarchy are inclined to keep those results and whatever consequences to itself. Which is not as it should be.

In the build-up to the British Open at Hoylake, Anthony Scanlon, the executive director of the International Golf Federation who are overseeing the sport's return to the Olympic Games in 2016, was asked how players would be available for random drug testing.

He responded: “They’re registered on the registered testing pool by their national Olympic committee. So from that moment forth they’re subject to the wide list of prohibited substances and the testing list. “My understanding it’s 13 weeks out from the Olympic Games.”

It might be better if the PGA Tour and, by association, the other main tours – including the European Tour – adopted that policy for themselves.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times