Golf one year away from Olympic drug testing

By Rex HoggardMay 5, 2015, 10:20 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – For the vast majority of potential Olympic golfers, the 2016 Games are still little more than a notation on the calendar, distant milestones akin to retirement or 50th wedding anniversaries.

On Wednesday, however, things start to get very real.

That’s the beginning of the one-year countdown to the date – May 6, 2016 – when every potential Olympic golfer, male and female, will be subject to the testing protocols of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Golf will return as an Olympic sport Aug. 11, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Those protocols, which make the PGA Tour’s policies look like “testing lite,” include daily “whereabouts tests” requiring golfers to provide their locations so they can be tested any time, anywhere, and blood testing, which is the only method for identifying human growth hormone. The PGA Tour does not include either procedure in its anti-doping efforts. Some anti-doping officials consider the variations between the drug-testing policies of the Tour and the World Anti-Doping Agency to be subtle, yet essentially substantial.

The job of shepherding golf into this new world of anti-doping falls to Andy Levinson, the PGA Tour’s executive director of policy administration who also serves as the executive director of USA Golf, the organization tasked with running golf’s Olympic teams in the United States.

In an exclusive interview with GolfChannel.com, Levinson, who is referred to in Tour circles as the circuit’s anti-doping czar, said the education process for potential Olympic golfers already has started.

“Olympic anti-doping was a significant topic at the PGA Tour’s annual player meeting in January and it was also a topic of discussion at the LPGA’s first player meeting in January as well,” Levinson said. “We’re going to continue to have one-on-one meetings with players, managers, spouses and player support personnel so that everyone is well aware of what’s involved.”

That education process intensified this week at The Players with officials from the International Golf Federation hosting an anti-doping meeting on Monday. Another meeting was held on Tuesday between Tour officials and various player managers to discus the anti-doping differences.


Timeline: PGA Tour and drug testing


Levinson said there will also be a document issued later this summer and distributed to potential Olympic golfers outlining everything they need to know about the Games from anti-doping to travel and athlete housing in Rio. He said he also expects to have one-on-one meetings with golfers as the May 6, 2016, deadline approaches.

“I do anticipate players will have more questions as they focus on it more and we get closer to the Games, and as we sit down with them I fully expect to answer any questions they might have,” Levinson said.

The Tour began drug testing in 2008; since then, its testing officials have become as ubiquitous as courtesy cars at Tour stops, and players have become accustomed to periodic sample requests.

“Testing is not fun. Nobody likes going through the process, going and peeing in a cup and having guys watch you, but it’s part of the deal. I think most guys get that,” said Matt Kuchar, who currently would be just outside the testing pool based on his position in the Olympic Golf Ranking.

What many players probably don’t get is how dramatically testing will change starting next May for those who are placed into the registered pool, which will consist of anyone qualified for the Games according to the Olympic Golf Ranking.

Currently qualified for the United States’ men’s team are Jordan Spieth (world No. 2), Bubba Watson (No. 4), Jim Furyk (No. 5) and Dustin Johnson (No. 8). On the women’s side it’s Stacy Lewis (No. 3), Brittany Lincicome (No. 6) Cristie Kerr (No. 7) and Michelle Wie (No. 10). Any golfer who plays his or her way onto those lists would be added to the pool until the fields are finalized on July 11, 2016.


DIFFERENCES IN POLICIES

“Whereabouts testing” will require players to inform the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) where they are going to be for one hour each day between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. so they can be tested.

USADA officials say a smartphone app will allow competitors to report their locations instantly, but the penalty for a missed test can be severe – three whereabouts testing “failures” will count as a positive test.

“I don’t know all the details, but for a period leading up [to the Olympics], we understand what other athletes go through,” said Graeme McDowell, who currently would be included in the pool and would fall under the jurisdiction of Irish testing authorities. “They have to account for their whereabouts at all times because they can be tested at any time. We understand that things are going to be different and I think we’ll all accept. I don’t think anyone has anything to hide.”

Golfers will also be subject to blood testing, which is not part of the Tour’s anti-doping program but is currently the only way to detect HGH. While steroids will always be the face of anti-doping, many golf fitness experts contend that HGH would be the drug of choice if a professional golfer were inclined to dope.

“It’s a big concern, obviously,” said Travis Tygart, the CEO of the USADA, the organization that will oversee testing next year for America’s potential Olympic golfers. “All you have to do is look at page 28 of their [anti-doping] policy and they ask the question, in the FAQ guide for players, ‘How can hormones be used to enhance performance in golf?’ Then you look back and say, ‘if that does all that good and gives me a performance advantage and I’ve got no chance of being caught for it ... That’s a concern.’”

HGH dramatically speeds recovery from injury and produces more energy, and since the Tour, unlike the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA, does not conduct blood testing it is impossible to police.

“We don’t conduct blood testing and even if we did the detection window for HGH is very limited in the current tests,” Levinson said. “If, for example, we had evidence that someone were using HGH or in possession of HGH or had admitted to using HGH then those would be violations.”

Levinson said he regularly meets with officials from the USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to discuss the ongoing development of blood testing, and even as other sports leagues embrace blood testing to combat HGH use, technology advancements are giving anti-doping officials more options.

One such test by scientists at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., measures HGH in urine. According to the George Mason team, the USADA-funded project would give testers a larger window to detect HGH – from just a few days using the current blood test to possibly two weeks in urine  – and would alleviate athlete concerns that come with blood testing.

“Specifically for golfers or athletes who are involved in sports that have fine motor skills involved you just want to make sure that there’s not anything whether it’s sticking a needle in the arm or if someone has an issue with a blood draw of any kind that it won’t impact their performance,” Levinson said.

Tygart remains cautiously optimistic that the science is improving but warns that the technology still needs to be developed.

“We saw some of the science early on a few years ago and it just wasn’t ready for implementation into the athlete world. We try to continue to help develop it, but it’s just not there yet,” Tygart said. “If it was a realistic possibility [to test for HGH in urine] we’d love to do that. It almost nullifies the need for blood. But it’s not there and our science guys are not convinced it’s going to be there in the near future.”

Out-of-competition testing will be another new experience for golfers.

Although the Tour considers tests administered on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday of tournament weeks out-of-competition, compared with the testing protocols in other Olympic sports it is a much lower threshold than what will become the norm next May.

“We’re a little bit different than other Olympic sports, even other professional sports, in we do have access to our athletes on a year-round basis and we do conduct that testing year round,” Levinson said.

Potential Olympic golfers will also be subjected to the complete WADA list of prohibited substances, which the Tour deviated from, however slightly, when the circuit introduced testing in ’08, including corticosteroids (anti-inflammatories), certain allergy and asthma medications, and certain forms of pseudoephedrine (a decongestant).


Video: Tygart explains the player education process


THE TRUTH IN TRANSPARENCY

But the biggest difference, at least according to Tygart, will be the introduction of a much more transparent testing program.

The Tour’s policy is to announce violations of its anti-doping program involving performance-enhancing drugs, but not recreational violations.

Unlike WADA and USADA, the Tour also doesn’t reveal what drug caused the violation – a change the circuit made after the first year – or how many golfers are tested.

“There are some slight differences to the WADA code and that’s not unlike any other major professional sports league in the United States,” Levinson said. “WADA has its opinion about its own policy and feels strongly about that, but the PGA Tour was able to develop a policy that is a smart policy and focused on golf and the other professional sports have been able to develop policies to do that as well.

“They may not be exactly in line with WADA but that doesn’t mean they’re not comprehensive, good policies.”

But for Tygart and the other anti-doping agencies, transparency is a corner that simply can’t be cut. For the USADA chief – who led the investigation into the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, was involved in Major League Baseball’s BALCO scandal and was once described as the “Eliot Ness of sports” – full disclosure accompanied with independent verification are the cornerstones of an effective anti-doping policy.

“If you have the obligation to not give a sanction or to stick the file in the drawer and not go forward, I’m not in any way suggesting that’s what [the Tour] have done, but the policy allows for that. Without any accountability elsewhere it’s hard to know for sure,” Tygart told GolfChannel.com.

“We’ve certainly seen other high-profile sports, cycling in the past, where in ’99 with Lance Armstrong’s corticosteroid positive, that’s exactly what the sport did. After the report that just came out detailing that sad saga it was clear they did it because it was going to be harmful to them and to the sport.

“That’s the pressure and the tension that you have going back to the fox guarding the henhouse. It’s awfully difficult and in our experience impossible to both promote and police your sport because you have this inherent duty to make the brand look good and not have any bad news out there.”

Tygart also points out the importance of full disclosure when it comes to testing statistics. In 2014, USADA administered 9,497 drug tests – including 6,292 out-of-competition tests – and publicly discloses all athletes’ testing history. For example, Lindsey Vonn, a U.S. Olympic skier and Tiger Woods’ former girlfriend, was tested five times last year according to the USADA website.

The Tour’s policy has no such transparency.

“We do not disclose our specific testing details but I can say that we’ve conducted thousands of tests since the program’s inception,” Levinson said. “The players know that they can be tested any time throughout the year with no limit on the number of tests conducted on them throughout the year.”

But Tygart says it’s less about player participation than it is public perception when it comes to transparency.

“Our athletes came to us and said, 'look, we want to have this information on our website,’” Tygart said. “We want to show how many times we’ve been tested. We want to remove any doubt.’”

The byproduct of the Tour’s silence, however, is confusion when a player – like Johnson last year – takes an extended break.

Last August, Golf.com reported Johnson had been suspended for six months after failing his third test for cocaine. The Tour and Johnson denied the report, which cites an unidentified source, and returned to the Tour in February at the Farmers Insurance Open. 

In March, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem acknowledged the potential pitfalls of the circuit’s policy and the impact innuendo could have on otherwise innocent players. 

“We reserve the right to [announce violations] but we generally don't make public comment on it. That's not to say we wouldn't ever, depending on the facts,” Finchem said. 

“If it triggers a situation where a player is stepping away from the game or getting, maybe being suspended but we really don't know, does that create confusion, and that's one point that we are giving some thought to on that particular situation.”

But the USADA policy has no such ambiguity and Tygart points out that staring next May the names of golfers who enter the Olympic testing pool will be published, just like Vonn’s. “It’s something clean athletes want,” he added.

It’s just one of many things that will change in 12 months for potential Olympic golfers as the Games inch closer and that distant notation on the calendar suddenly becomes very real.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.