Buried midway through a lengthy article in the Feb. 4 edition of Sports Illustrated entitled “Snake oil for sale and the athletes who, science be damned, think it might work” an unexpected haymaker was delivered to the PGA Tour’s Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., compound by way of Vijay Singh.
In the article, Singh admitted to using the Ultimate Spray, which contained IGF-1, a growth hormone like HGH that is on the Tour’s prohibited list. Within days the Tour launched an investigation into Singh’s use of the spray.
Ten days after the Sports Illustrated article was published, Singh received a letter from the Tour informing him he had violated the circuit’s anti-doping program. On Feb. 19 another letter arrived stating that Singh would be suspended for 90 days.
The title of the article – which outlined the use of various drugs which claim performance benefits but have little, if any, scientific support – is telling because the Tour, at the urging of the World Anti-Doping Agency, eventually ruled that Singh had admitted to taking little more than an expensive placebo.
“During the appeal process, PGA Tour counsel contacted WADA to confirm a number of technical points,” Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said on April 30. “At that time, WADA clarified that it no longer considers the use of deer-antler spray to be prohibited unless a positive test results.”
Singh, who had not failed a drug test, was cleared and nearly $100,000 in winnings, which had been held in escrow, was returned to the Fijian, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame with 34 Tour titles.
Singh, however, had little interest in an anti-doping mulligan. Shortly after being cleared of any violation, he sued the Tour in May, claiming the circuit publically humiliated him and, “as a result of the Tour’s action, Singh has been labeled by the Tour, media, some fellow golfers and fans as someone who intentionally took a banned substance in an effort to gain a competitive advantage.”
The legal give and take since that filing, which occurred on the eve of the Tour’s marquee event, the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, has been predictably contentious, with the circuit arguing in October that the suit should be dismissed.
While both sides continue to wait for judge Eileen Bransten to rule on the Tour’s motion, the central themes of both side’s arguments remain unchanged.
Singh’s lawyers have argued that the IGF-1 that was in the deer-antler spray he admitted to using is not the same chemical found on the Tour’s list of prohibited substances and that the circuit does not uniformly administer its anti-doping program.
In his original claim, Singh’s lawyers claim that Mark Calcavecchia admitted to using the same spray but was never disciplined by the Tour. And in a recent discovery motion his attorneys requested information related to a “possible or actual violation of the program” by Calcavecchia and four other players.
“The PGA (Tour) has made exception after exception after exception, both with regard to whom it was administering this drug policy and against whom it was disciplining,” Singh’s lawyer Peter Ginsberg argued in October. “For some reason the (Tour) singled out Mr. Singh and treated him in a way that it has not historically or uniformly treated other (Tour) members.”
Attorneys for the Tour dismissed many of Singh’s discovery requests as a “fishing expedition” and have maintained that he “received the full relief to which he is entitled under his agreement with the Tour, and did not miss any PGA Tour tournaments or lose any prize money.”
“No one pressured Mr. Singh to play the PGA Tour,” the circuit’s attorney Jeffrey Mishkin argued on Nov. 1. “Like every other player he expressly agreed to the eligibility conditions set forth in the membership renewal agreement.”
Throughout the legal wrangling Singh has continued to play, and while he failed to advance to the FedEx Cup playoffs in 2013 he began the 2013-14 season with a runner-up showing at the Frys.com Open.
He also played his first Champions Tour event in September (he turned 50 in February), where he tied for sixth in Hawaii. But he admitted last month at the Australian Masters that the ongoing legal bout has had an impact on his game.
“It has been going on for a whole year and it kind of messed up my whole season,” he said. “The best thing I told myself to do is just focus on what I know best which is playing golf and let the legal side take care of its own.”
That legal solution, however, does not seem imminent. Depending on Bransten’s decision on the Tour’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, a final verdict could still be months, not to mention untold motions and filings, away.
“Snake oil,” it seems, has never been so contentious.