Patel's PED violation raises more questions for Tour's testing policies

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Doug Barron can finally give up the infamous title he was saddled with in the fall of 2009. No longer is the former journeyman alone atop the PGA Tour’s anti-doping hit list.

On Wednesday the circuit announced that Bhavik Patel, a Web.com Tour member who has never played a PGA Tour event, had become the second player suspended for violating the performance-enhancing drugs policy.

Barron, you may recall, was bounced for a year for a variety of violations that stemmed from a low testosterone level and severe panic disorder, while Patel began his suspension on Oct. 7 for what appears to be a bona fide violation.

“In an effort to overcome an injury, I made a lapse of judgment. I regret my decision but have learned from the experience and look forward to returning to competition,” Patel said in a statement released by the Tour.

Unlike Barron, who was later granted a therapeutic use exemption for at least one of the substances that caused his suspension, and Vijay Singh, who was initially sanctioned when he admitted to taking a banned substance in 2013 but was later absolved when the World Anti-Doping Agency reversed its decision on the use of IGF-1, Patel appears to have run afoul of the anti-doping policy for all the wrong reasons.

Not that those reasons are particularly clear at the moment, which leads to even bigger concerns involving the Tour’s anti-doping program that go well beyond a lone pair of non-descript violators.

Whatever it is Patel did to warrant his one-year suspension remains unknown. Although the Tour’s original PED manual in 2008 stated, "... the PGA Tour will, at a minimum, publish the name of the player, the anti-doping rule violation, and the sanction imposed,” for a performance-enhancing violation, that policy was amended in January 2009 when “the anti-doping violation” wording was removed from the policy.

However subtle the reworded policy may seem, it only serves to further extend a cloak of secrecy that has defined the anti-doping program since its inception.

The radio silence is particularly concerning following reports last fall that Dustin Johnson had been suspended for six months following a third failed drug test. The Tour’s policy is to not comment on violations involving recreational drugs (the Golf.com report stated Johnson tested positive for cocaine according to an unnamed source), but the Tour later sent out a release clarifying, “Johnson has taken a voluntary leave of absence and is not under suspension from the PGA Tour.”

It’s exactly the kind of obfuscation an anti-doping policy is designed to avoid, particularly for a sport that is less than two years away from returning to the Olympics.

In fact, it’s likely the 2016 Games prompted the Tour to double its efforts to weed out violators.

In a little over a year each country’s Olympic committee will submit a list of potential golfers to play the Games at which time those athletes will be subject to testing through WADA, which doesn’t hold a player’s privacy in as high regard as the Tour.

A recent Reuters story pointed out the significant differences between the Tour’s anti-doping program versus WADA’s program and a recent move to help educate potential Olympic golfers.

“What's going to be key is a full understanding of the differences, how that impacts a clean player and making sure a clean player has an opportunity to be successful,” U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) chief Travis Tygart told Reuters.

“The WADA code has things like the beta-2s (agonists that are used to treat asthma and other pulmonary disorders) that are going to be different than what the current (PGA Tour) list looks like.”

To Tygart’s point consider that the WADA code is rather clear on the publication of violations, stating, “The anti-doping organization responsible for results management must publicly report the disposition of the anti-doping matter including the sport, the anti-doping rule violated, the name of the athlete or other person committing the violation, the prohibited substance or prohibited method involved and the consequences imposed.”

With few exceptions, the Tour has followed the WADA code and has largely deferred to the agency in its ongoing lawsuit with Singh, but when it comes to public disclosure, something the circuit has always been adverse to, it has deviated in a crucial way.

If transparency is what Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., is vying for so be it, but Wednesday’s announcement only served to leave a cloud of more uncertainty.

Perhaps Patel’s violation is a sign of increased scrutiny by the Tour, but after six years and untold thousands of tests (each player is reportedly tested twice a year) the circuit’s anti-doping efforts have yielded a grand total of two violators – the 971st-ranked player in the world, who appears to have taken a mystery substance to recover from injury, and a forty-something journeyman whose most egregious violation seems to have been an aversion to the proper paperwork.

Despite six years of trial and error, the Tour seems to be missing the key component of an affective testing program – transparency.