Vijay Singh should be remembered as one of golf’s most successful late bloomers, with 22 of his 34 PGA Tour wins taking place in the decade since he turned the big four-oh. He should be honored for his 26 second-place finishes, 17 third-place finishes and the more than $67 million he’s earned on Tour. He should also get a place next to Ben Hogan on the Mount Rushmore of golf as one of the all-time range warriors.
Instead, the last lines of his legacy may end up reading the same as his early entries: cheater.
A recent Sports Illustrated story exposed a small sports supplement company that had been marketing a spray containing IGF-1, a growth hormone-like substance that is banned by every major sports league, including the Tour. The story named several prominent athletes as clients, including Singh. Like most of the athletes who are caught using, he claimed that he did not know the product, which is derived from deer antlers, contained a banned substance. To his credit, Singh has admitted his use of the product and is complying with Tour officials as they investigate they situation.
“I am absolutely shocked that deer-antler spray may contain a banned substance and am angry that I have put myself in this position. I have been in contact with the PGA Tour and am cooperating fully with their review of this matter. I will not be commenting further at this time,” said Singh in a written statement.
Tour officials will want to know how long he has been using the product and what else he may have been using before determining what action to take — including a possible suspension, a decision that could ultimately cost Singh millions in endorsements and prize money. In the meantime, Singh has withdrawn from the latest Tour stop, the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Ariz.
It’s not a stretch to say that Singh is one of the least popular players on the Tour, so it’s no surprise that he isn’t getting much support from his peers.
‘‘It’s sad that people live and die by their sport and they have to, I guess, cheat and go around it and try to better themselves with deer-antler spray,’’ Bubba Watson told reporters in Scottsdale. ‘‘I’m not just going to take something and ask questions later. I’m not going to take deer-antler spray and find out what it is later. I think we should check them for mental problems if they’re taking deer-antler spray. That’s kind of weird.’’
Tour veteran Mark O’Meara went on record calling for Singh to be suspended.
“Probably he should be suspended for a couple of months, and I don’t know what the PGA Tour Commissioner is thinking, but people have had to pay the price before and he should be no different,” O’Meara told reporters.
Like Tiger Woods, Singh doesn’t have an easy smile or a “aw shucks” way of talking to the press or the fans. On the contrary, he seems to go out of his way to alienate, aggravate or intimidate anyone around him that he doesn’t feel the necessity to connect to, which is barely anyone. Once after a practice session, I asked him if I could get five seconds for a couple of questions. He looked me over, raised and eyebrow and said, “I’ll give you three.”
A lifetime of being crunchy and obtuse leaves Singh ill-equipped for the public relations storm that he will have to navigate over the coming months or even years. Through his many accomplishments, Singh had managed to bury the stigma of allegations of improving his lie and altering his scorecard while on the Asian Tour during the 80s. He also managed to distance himself from the disparaging remarks he made about Annika Sorenstam’s historic appearance on the men’s tour.
But this time, it will be harder to avoid a lasting scar. Singh finds himself now categorized in a group that includes Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez. They’re all considered cheaters, guys who would do anything to obtain and maintain excellence. They all have stellar career records that are now regarded as counterfeit, even the portion of their achievements that came before they began using PEDs.
Bubba Watson has a point; you’d have to be almost crazy to check for the banned ingredients and not see them on the list. I found the ingredient in just a casual search of the Tour drug policy guide. It leads the skeptic to think three things.
- Singh believed that he was getting a product that would help his aging body stay young.
- He had faith that the product would achieve that because it contained a substance that is banned precisely because it did just that.
- Like every other steroid peddler, the deer antler spray guys likely told Singh that it was untraceable. It seems like a hard line to take, but that has been the path that virtually every other performance enhancing drug case in every other sport has taken.
The PGA Tour is probably as ill-equipped for this situation as Singh. While they do in fact have a detailed policy, they have little practical experience with how to handle a positive test or an admission of guilt like Singh’s. Indeed, since testing began in 2008, only one player, Doug Barron, has tested positive and subsequently been suspended.
Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem would be well served to give MLB Commissioner Bud Selig a call. Selig knows all too well the perils along this path. As the guardian of his sport, Finchem may be tempted to gloss over, minimize or even cover up elements of the story out of a desire to keep the sport out of the negative spotlight. Such actions proved folly for baseball. When every owner and every player knew there was a problem in the sport, instead of confronting the issue they chose collective silence as a course of action. It proved to be a disastrous decision, rendering a generation of its greatest stars irrelevant to the overarching history of the game.
As the Tour determines what to do in the case of Singh, officials should keep in mind that baseball and golf are similar in that their histories are just as important as their present. The ability to draw a line of comparison from Tom Morris to Tom Watson to Bubba Watson is essential to the appreciation of the ancient game. While most have come to grips with the effect that equipment technology has had on the game, there will likely be no tolerance for game improvement via illegal supplements.
For Vijay Singh, the coming days will determine whether he will be perceived as ruthless and immoral, or simply careless and gullible. For the sport, the challenge will be to respond to this incident in a way that prevents an isolated spot from becoming a lasting stain.