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New era of PGA Tour drug testing begins at Safeway

By Rex HoggardOctober 4, 2017, 6:30 pm

A question that’s been a decade in the making will be answered this week at the PGA Tour’s season opener in California.

The PGA Tour introduced its anti-doping program in 2008 under the guise that golf, although widely believed to be free of the doping scourge that had tainted so many other sports, needed to show the world that it was “clean.”

For years, the circuit has pointed to its testing record – with only a handful of low profile and largely innocent violations – as proof the game is above doping, but there was always a hole in the Tour’s anti-doping policy.

Since the program began, the Tour has only used urine to test for violations, which detects the vast majority of drugs a player may use to gain a competitive advantage, but not every drug.

In fact, some experts have contended for years that the most likely drug a golfer would use in search of a performance benefit was human growth hormone (HGH), which can’t be detected in a urine test.

This week that changes.

The Tour announced in June it would begin blood testing for the 2017-18 season, which begins on Thursday at the Safeway Open.

“The main reason for blood test is a urine sample doesn’t cover a couple of drugs,” said Paul Casey, a member of last season’s player advisory council.

Part of the Tour’s shift to blood testing also included a move to an expanded list of prohibited substances, which now includes the entire banned list from the World Anti-Doping Agency. But it will be the new blood testing element that will receive the most attention from players.

“We were told how it would be done roughly, that it would all be fine. Let’s say if you get four [urine] drug tests a year, which is the average on Tour, one of them would probably be a blood test,” Casey said.

Although the Tour doesn’t disclose the exact timing of anti-doping tests, under the policy they have the authority to test players at any time - before or after a round and even when a player is not at a tournament - out-of-competition testing has been virtually non-existent and post-round seems to be the most likely timing for blood testing.

The Tour recently released a 20-minute informational video to teach players about the anti-doping program and specifically blood testing. According to the video, blood testing takes about 20 minutes and includes two vials filled with less than a tablespoon of blood.

“It’s a part of being a professional and players see [blood testing] as one element of maintaining the integrity and the overall image of our sport,” said Andy Levinson, the Tour’s executive director of policy administration. “There was really no negative push-back.”

The samples will be sent to a WADA-approved lab and will be kept for at least two years after the test.

While the Tour was aware of concerns over a lack of blood testing for years, the 2016 Olympic Games convinced officials and players to move forward with the policy.

In Rio, Levinson said about 15 to 20 percent of the tests given to golfers were blood tests and that there were no issues with players or their swings being impacted by the procedures.

“We’ve heard from some players who may have an aversion to needles, and believe everyone feels comfortable with how the tests are administered,” Levinson said.

Many of those concerns were alleviated in Rio, and the Tour has spent the last few months educating players on the procedures, but much like what happened in ’08, when testing was started, there will probably be a few growing pains.

 “I heard we are going to get blood tested, but that’s all I’ve heard,” Gary Woodland said. “I haven’t heard when, I haven’t heard if it’s after the rounds, before the rounds. It’s been pretty quiet, but we’ll find out in a couple of weeks.”

Whatever concerns over testing players may have had, the vast majority agree it was time for the Tour to take this long-awaited step toward a more complete program, and some suggest there is still room for an expansion of testing.

“Why can’t we do hair samples, because then you can actually trace further back?” asked Casey, who is also an amateur cyclist. “There are certain drugs that are flushed out of the system within a day or two days, hair actually holds that drug in the follicle longer.”

Golf’s return to the Olympics last year will ensure the game remains vigilant when it comes to testing and officials haven’t ruled out new tests as the science and doping evolves. But for now, the circuit is content with the new testing methods.

“There is a lot of alternative testing methods, including hair, but the efficiency of these tests is really not at a level that would warrant use in a sport anti-doping program at this time,” Levinson said. “Urine is the most effective method of detecting most of the substances we are looking for.”

But if the Tour’s anti-doping program isn’t exactly cutting edge compared to some other sports, it is for the first time ever a true deterrent and a true answer to a question that had been left unanswered for a decade.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”