News & Opinion

Tour’s tougher drug policy hinges on Monahan

It didn’t take long before the tributes, salutes and huzzahs began pouring in.

The PGA Tour, after years of lagging behind other sports in drug testing and potential player discipline, revised its 9-year-old anti-doping policy Tuesday, moving closer to the guidelines of other sports organizations.

In two notable adjustments, beginning this fall for the 2017-18 season, the Tour will:

  • Add periodic blood tests to detect performance-enhancing substances, in accordance with World Anti-Doping Agency protocols.
  • Begin announcing suspensions of players who test positive for illegal street drugs.

Former world No. 1 Greg Norman quickly applauded the news on his social-media account: “It is about bloody time. Congrats on finally following WADA. Zero tolerance.”
Truth be told, there’s plenty of wiggle room in the Tour rulebook relating to the second issue. First-year commissioner Jay Monahan retains a built-in bailout area that’s wider than the fairways last week at Erin Hills.

There’s no question that on the accountability front, moving toward testing policies used by other sports organizations rightly will be greeted as a positive move, and likewise for handing down public suspensions for taking illegal drugs. Yet regarding the latter, it still remains anybody’s guess as to whether any player discipline will be revealed. There might be plenty of smoke but no fire. 

The street-drugs revision has so many loopholes, players might never be publicly sanctioned for taking drugs that are against the law. Plus, players of differing strata could face uneven punishment for similar violations.

Here’s how the street-drugs portion of the policy works: If a player fails a test for, say, cocaine or marijuana, the commissioner has unilateral powers to adjudicate the issue, sort of like a benevolent dictator. He can send the player home on voluntary leave, ship him to counseling or rehab, fine him or mete out some sort of combo platter.

Suspensions likely will remain a last resort, reserved only in extreme instances. What defines extreme? Ask Monahan, because it will depend on his mood, and potentially, the status of the player in question. For years, players have grumbled about the lack of a formal disciplinary policy with codified punishment. Instead, the authority rests largely in the hands of the commissioner.

According to Andy Levinson, a Tour senior vice president, suspending a player could depend on variables such as the golfer’s history, the severity of the incident and the number of previous offenses. In short, it remains a subjective call. 

Best guess, a Tour member named Tommy Chong would need to be arrested at DFW with a few kilos of weed in his golf bag and video cameras rolling, then flunk a drug test before he’d be in hot water. Once a suspension would be handed down, the player retains the right to appeal, which would add months to the benching scenario. Justice not only could be situationally blind, but glacial.

Only at that point would a player be publicly kicked to the curb. Arguably the best part of the street-drugs revision is that the rule protects the player and the Tour against rampant public speculation if a player were to disappear for weeks at a time with little explanation, as was the case with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson’s six-month hiatus in 2014. A formal suspension for drugs of abuse would be announced, according to the policy.

In theory, that is.

Still, for a tour that long has been chided for putting player image over accountability, it adds credibility.

“I guess you could say that,” Levinson said. “It’s something that our commissioner felt strongly about.”

Now we’ll see whether Monahan actually has the backbone to employ it.

As for the WADA issue, the testing yardstick used for Olympic sports, the Tour observed the blood testing conducted during the men’s golf event at the Rio de Janeiro Games last year and came away impressed, Levinson said.

“We’ve been evaluating blood testing for a while, and one of the factors was seeing the Olympic process take place with no issues at all,” he said. “The change is more in line with common anti-doping practices.” Of course, if a player tests positive for any banned substances at the Olympics, it’ll be a simple sayonara, because the Tour doesn’t run the event or administer the testing.

As for whether the street-drugs revision has any street cred, perhaps we’ll soon find out whether players are as squeaky clean as the Tour wants us to believe, if not whether the top brass has the moxie to prove otherwise. It’s worth noting that if the Tour suspends even a small number of players for taking street drugs, it would be tantamount to admitting that the infallible image that officials have been feeding fans for years has been tainted with a whiff of Wisconsin-grade cowpies.

Aromatic metaphors aside, with regard to a future spate of street-drug suspensions, don’t hold your breath.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling