SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In golf, as in life, cheating and breaking the rules are two very different actions with very similar consequences. Kick your ball from the rough into the fairway and you’re subject to penalty. Ground your putter only to see your ball oscillate slightly and you’re also subject to penalty, even if the intent wasn’t the same.
In the aftermath of revelations that Vijay Singh has used deer-antler spray that contains IGF-1, a chemical banned under the PGA Tour’s Anti-Doping Policy, observers will be trying to differentiate between whether he cheated or simply broke a rule. It’s a major distinction as far as the Hall of Fame member’s public image, but mere semantics when it comes to the letter of the law.
In a statement released Wednesday, Singh said, “When I first received the product, I reviewed the list of ingredients and did not see any prohibited substances. I am absolutely shocked that deer-antler spray may contain a banned substance and am angry that I have put myself in this position.”
Shock and anger – not to mention a healthy dose of admission – will go a long way toward keeping public perception on his side. In an era when most athletes deny all allegations until finally taking a seat on Oprah’s couch, Singh’s confirmation may be viewed as a breath of fresh of air, his quick compliance proof that he didn’t cheat.
He did, however, unequivocally break a rule.
According to the Anti-Doping Policy, Singh’s conduct is in direct violation of the program, which was implemented in 2008. It states: “Other conduct may lead to the finding of a violation and sanctions under the program, including the possession, use or attempted use of a prohibited substance or method; refusing or failing to be tested; tampering with a sample; trafficking in or administering any prohibited substance; or admitting to any conduct that violates the program.”
The last part of that statement should serve as the tipping point. Singh clearly admitted to conduct that violated the program, even if it was as unknowingly as he claims.
As if that isn’t enough to implicate him in this matter, the policy further states: 'It is each player’s personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance enters his body. … Accordingly, it is not necessary that intent, fault, negligence or knowing use on the player’s part be demonstrated in order to establish an anti-doping violation.”
That’s it. Singh is guilty of breaking that policy. End of story.
Well, sort of.
There are still gray areas here, the grayest of which is the fact that the PGA Tour doesn’t test for IGF-1, because it can only be detected through blood testing, not urine testing, which is the only method currently administered.
Consider it golf’s philosophical conundrum on par with, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?”
To wit: If a professional golfer uses a banned substance that isn’t tested for, did he really break a rule?
“That’s like when you cheat off somebody’s test in middle school,” Bill Haas compared. “If the teacher doesn’t see you, did you cheat? Yeah, you cheated.”
“If you’re going over the speed limit but don’t get caught, are you speeding?” asked Stewart Cink. “Yeah, because it’s an ethical thing and an intent thing.”
Of course, admitting to the use of IGF-1 is akin to paying a speeding ticket that was never administered. It shouldn’t, though, serve as an out for Singh in this matter.
Major League Baseball can – and has – suspended players for what it calls “non-analytical evidence,” which is another way of saying that when officials own proof a player broke the substance abuse policy, they can dispense punishment without having a failed test.
Ask any professional golfer and he’ll steadfastly maintain that the game doesn’t have a drug problem because its competitors wouldn’t cheat. Call that a naïve viewpoint or the honest truth, but it doesn’t cover the fact that players can still break the rules - and this latest incident should serve as further evidence.
“Golf is a little bit different,” explained Cink, who has served on the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council in the past. “I just don’t think that deer-antler spray or a lot of the stuff that’s banned by WADA is going to help you play golf better. A lot of that stuff can help you be a better cyclist or a more explosive defensive back, but we’re not out here to be explosive. So I don’t really think that golf needs to test for every single thing on the banned list. We don’t have a rules official with every single golfer. We just play by the rules.”
Whether Singh knowingly used deer-antler spray with the knowledge that it contained a banned substance is something for which he alone may have the answer. The affirmative may be the very definition of cheating, just like kicking a ball from the rough into the fairway.
What we do know is that Singh did use the banned substance, which is at the very least akin to grounding your putter before seeing the ball oscillate on the green.
In other words, he broke a rule. And as much as it may pain the PGA Tour to punish one of its superstars for a violation without any deemed intent, the only acceptable message here is to administer the proper penalty. In golf, as in life, that’s what happens when you break the rules.