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Tour makes right call on Singh after long, strange journey

Vijay Singh
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Call it an interesting execution of the right idea.

In sport, and particularly golf, there are times when reason takes a 6-and-5 whipping at the hands of small print. The Rules of Golf are riddled with violations that assault the senses and result in senseless violations when there was no chance of a competitive gain.

We learned on Tuesday afternoon the anti-doping laws are not as dogmatic.

This was about justice – slow and minutia filled and sometimes, like in the curious case of Vijay Singh, entirely unexpected. A slam dunk in doping parlance, turned into a slippery slope over the last few weeks that luckily, for both golf and Singh, had an emergency exit.

Tour drops anti-doping case against Singh

PGA Tour's official statement on Singh decision

Q&A: Finchem's news conference

In January when Singh admitted in a Sports Illustrated article he’d used deer-antler spray, which reportedly contained a substance (IGF-1) that was banned by the PGA Tour, there were only two options. Either the spray didn’t contain IGF-1, in which case there would be no sanctions, or scientists would find the growth-like factor and deem Singh in violation.

“If it’s (the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) they will seek a ban. It’s ‘Law & Order’ time; they will try to negotiate a plea bargain,” Matt Lane, a lawyer with extensive experience in the world of anti-doping litigation, told your scribe at the time.

The Tour thought so, too, finding Singh guilty of a violation and issuing a sanction. Over the ensuing weeks of appeals and legal wrangling, however, the World Anti-Doping Agency had a change of heart.

“It is the position of WADA, in applying the prohibited list, that the use of deer-antler spray (which is known to contain small amounts of IGF-1) is not considered prohibited,” the agency told the Tour.

As a result, Singh is in the field this week at the Wells Fargo Championship. And next week at The Players Championship and beyond.

If Singh’s case doesn’t exactly leave the sports world with a warm and fuzzy feeling of accomplishment, consider this process akin to making sausage – you want to know the end result, not how it was made.

Since entering the anti-doping era in 2007 the Tour has followed WADA policy nearly word for small-print word, and on this the world body decided IGF-1 won’t make you run faster, jump higher or putt better.

What is curious is the Tour’s decision to check with WADA after issuing Singh’s sanctions. What would have happened had the Fijian not appealed the ruling and WADA’s 180 wasn’t realized until after the circuit had gone public with whatever penalties they felt the Hall of Famer deserved?

It’s also worth pointing out that IGF-1 was on the banned list when Singh admitted to using it. By comparison, if someone is given a speeding ticket for going 70 mph in a 55 mph zone, but the speed limit is increased on the same stretch of byway the next day to 70 mph, was there a violation?

But that’s a debate for another day.

Tuesday’s news also leaves players to decide if any level of IGF-1 is legal under the current policy. “It should be known that deer-antler spray contains small amounts of IGF-1 that may affect anti-doping tests,” WADA told the Tour.

It was not the kind of ambiguity one has come to expect from the anti-doping hawks at WADA. “Positive analytical” results have become the new norm in anti-doping, violations that come to light through published reports or federal investigations – just like the Singh case – not positive tests.

But with Singh, WADA took common sense over the letter of law, and that’s not a bad thing.

It was a commonly held theme throughout this affair that Singh could have consumed gallons of IGF-1 and enjoyed no performance benefit. In short, the deer-antler spray was described by trainers and scientist as an $8,000 placebo, which made possible sanctions against Singh arbitrary at best.

Back in February, Lane told your scribe that the anti-doping world would be watching the Tour closely. The Singh case would serve as a litmus test as golf prepares for its return to the Olympics in 2016 and whatever the circuit did would be scrutinized.

Turns out Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., with an assist from WADA, got it right. It wasn’t perfect, but it was just.