Drug testing in golf is a joke that isn’t funny

Of 1,003 Sports Ireland tests in 2016, only one – in Irish Ladies Golf Union – was in golf

Who would have thought that in a world so puffed up with its own self-importance, laughter is still the best medicine – the perfect treatment for the cursory invasion of discomfort in the otherwise La La Land that is Augusta National.

Even those of us who come down from the mountain tops once a year for a glimpse of the blooming azalea and wisteria vine found some of the jokes about Dustin Johnson’s withdrawal from the US Masters surprisingly amusing. That he should have rented a bungalow. That his injury should only keep him out for six months exactly. That he should have tried deer-antler spray.

There is nothing to suggest Johnson’s back injury hadn’t sufficiently crippled the world number one to prevent him from teeing off on Thursday evening, despite appearing comfortable on the warm-up range just minutes earlier, my colleague Greg Allen suggesting on RTÉ that Johnson was looking “pretty smooth and not compromised at all”.

The problem is we can’t be sure. Whatever way Johnson fell down the three steps of the stairwell at his rented house in Augusta on Wednesday – described as a “freak accident” – only he knows. Given his status as US Open champion and world number one and title favourite at Augusta, having won his three previous tournaments, withdrawing was surely the last resort.


What opened him to this ridicule was the fact he’d been here, done that: in 2014, Johnson missed the Ryder Cup after taking a six-month leave of absence from the game to deal with “personal challenges”; he took a three-month break in 2012 after claiming he’d hurt his back while lifting a jet ski. Depending on who you believe, Johnson was indeed injured or else serving time for doping offences, twice testing positive for cocaine (having also tested positive for marijuana in 2009).

‘Voluntary leave’

Johnson has never admitted to such offences because he doesn’t need to: such is the nontransparent anti-doping code on the PGA Tour, and non-compliance with the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), there is no obligation to release information on failed drug tests or resulting penalties, essentially allowing a player and his advisers to characterise an absence as they wish. “Voluntary leave of absence” normally does just nicely.

Imagine the IOC trying a stunt like that. Or Mo Farah or Chris Froome disappearing for six months leave of absence with no hard questions asked. There is nothing to suggest golf has a doping problem on a par with athletics or cycling, but still that shouldn’t create double standards such as this. If anything the so-called medicalisation of sport is becoming increasingly prevalent out on the fairways.

There have been some curious incidents. In 2013, Vijay Singh became the first leading player to cause a stir when he admitted to inadvertently using the banned growth hormone IGF-1, which was contained in his deer-antler spray, which he claimed he was taking for recovery purposes and bring about “some change in my body”. Still Singh was cleared of any doping offence, partly because the PGA Tour weren’t actually testing for IGF-1, and still don’t permit blood testing – the only way of accurately indentifying growth hormone.

Singh, strangely enough, also began the rush of golfers to withdraw from last summer’s Rio Olympics over fears of being infected with the Zika virus, which, coincidentally or not, also meant signing up to more stringent drug testing by the US anti-doping agency, including random out-of-competition tests and information on their whereabouts – neither of which are demanded under the PGA Tour’s anti-doping policy.

Irish golfers, by the way, are by far the least tested under Sport Ireland’s anti-doping programme: according to the figures released last month, of the 1,003 tests carried out in 2016, only one was in golf, and that was for the Irish Ladies Golf Union. That’s no joke.

Adverse findings

Yet figures released by Wada two years ago showed that golf now has a significantly higher percentage of adverse analytical findings (AAF) than sports such athletics, cycling, rugby or soccer. In fact golf came in with the third-highest score for the percentage of positive tests (1.6 per cent), worse than all of the other 21 listed sports except for equestrian sport and weightlifting.

Golf’s high finding in that Wada report also came from a relatively small number of samples (507), compared to 25,830 in athletics and 22,471 samples in cycling. That’s quite laughable, actually.

No wonder people like Dick Pound, the former president of Wada, has identified “a problem” with golf: “We have all seen the shape changes in golfers and the distances they are hitting now, and we know that the equipment is better and the balls are better, but it isn’t just that. If you follow some of the shape changes in the golfers and follow how, at a certain point, if they happen to come off them, you see how many more injuries they get.”

The funny thing is many of the top players themselves admit there is a problem with anti-doping in golf, including our own Rory McIlroy. Whatever about his misconstrued comments about the Zika virus, McIlroy appeared to know exactly what he was talking about on the eve of the British Open in Troon last summer, when addressing what he saw were still gaping holes in golf’s drug testing policy.

“I think drug testing in golf is still quite far behind some of the other sports,” he said. “I don’t know myself of a banned substance that could help a golfer across the board, with driving, with putting, with concentration. Physically, obviously, you can get stronger, recover faster. So, I mean, for example, human growth hormone (HGH) . . . you can’t really pick it up in a urine test. I could use HGH and get away with it.”

And as long as golf keeps playing by its own doping rules McIlroy can be sure of that.