Ryder Cup Drug Tests Fuel Rumor Mill

The Ryder Cup had its share of weekend thrills for fans, but for players the drama began much earlier. Tuesday evening, to be exact. And not at Le Golf National but seven miles away at the Trianon Palace hotel, which was home to both the U.S. and European teams. That’s when officials from the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD) arrived unannounced to conduct random drug tests.

The players had reason to be surprised. It was the first time drug tests were administered at a Ryder Cup. That it happened in Paris should be less surprising. The French take their anti-doping laws seriously. That’s why Lance Armstrong now owns as many Tour de France victories as Jack Nicklaus.

In the days after the Ryder Cup, as Team USA enjoyed the recriminations and finger-pointing portion of the entertainment, I asked the AFLD about the hotel visit.

“I can confirm that eight golfers were tested by AFLD while in France for the Ryder Cup,” director of communications Catherine Coley said.

Coley declined to name the players. Public disclosure is up to the athlete, she said.

The European Tour sounded a similar refrain.

“I can confirm that eight players – four from Europe, four from the U.S. – were tested at the Ryder Cup, but as is common practice with anti-doping we cannot disclose which players were tested,” Tour spokesman Steve Todd said.

Public disclosure is up to the athlete, Todd said.

In the murky uncertainty about who was tested, gossip fertilized rumors. On the range at last week’s PGA Tour stop in Las Vegas, speculation was rampant that a U.S. team member had tested positive. Names were whispered with a disregard for actual evidence. Within hours, that chatter had spread as far afield as Florida.

It wasn’t true.

“All the results are in and there were no positive tests,” said Maggie Durand, a spokeswoman for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), to which the French AFLD affiliate reported its findings. When asked about the method of testing, WADA confirmed it was urinalysis. And about the players tested?

In the event of a negative test, public disclosure is up to the athlete, WADA echoed.

But drug testing is golf’s third rail that no one wants to touch. That was apparent when I asked managers for every Ryder Cupper if their man had been tested. Even a clean slate of negative results didn’t encourage transparency among the tested.

Representatives for many players – including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth – didn’t respond to an inquiry on the matter. The London office of IMG, which handles the affairs of four European team members, referred questions to the European Tour, which handles none of them. Agents for Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka politely declined comment, citing team room confidentiality.

In the end, managers for just four of the 24 Ryder Cup players were willing to directly address the events of that Tuesday evening in Paris. Representatives for Tommy Fleetwood and Thorbjorn Olesen said that neither had been asked for a sample. Agents for Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter confirmed they were among the eight men tested.

The upfront approach taken by these four players is commendable. They have nothing to hide, so they don’t hide. None of the other six players tested in Paris has anything to hide either, but the culture of omerta surrounding drug testing in golf runs deep.

It may be just a coincidence that the only players willing to address the issue are European. But perhaps it’s not.

Former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem took a cagey approach to drug testing – and any disciplinary proceedings, for that matter – that seemed less focused on transparency than on circling the wagons around potential threats to a wholesome brand image. Players and managers would seem to have learned from the old boss.

The current commissioner, Jay Monahan, made a laudable and noteworthy break with his predecessor on matters narcotic by making public the identities of players suspended for violating drug-test protocols. The Tour is very slowly edging toward greater openness and less secrecy on drug testing. Players should do the same. It would go a long way toward shutting down the unfounded rumor mill that usually smears the same few players without any proof. That may be the most valuable lesson we can take from Paris.

Golfweek, November 11, 2018.

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