New era of PGA Tour drug testing begins at Safeway

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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.