At a time when Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson are among the most revered and highly compensated athletes in the world, it's easy to forget that professional golf once was considered the province of rogues and ruffians, its reputation shadowy enough that in the late 1950s Jack Nicklaus seriously considered remaining an amateur.
Vijay Singh's admission to Sports Illustrated that he used deer antler spray, which contains IGF-1, an insulinlike growth factor that is on the PGA Tour's list of prohibited substances, affords the tour a wide-open window to let in transparency and public accountability, the last elements needed in its evolution from a profession of hustlers to a respected world player.
Nicklaus helped usher golf into the mainstream with his family-man gravitas and 18 major titles. Along came Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman, who played major roles in growing golf on the global stage. Woods' arrival led to bulked-up tour purses - from an average of $1.47 million in 1996 to $6.2 million last year - and the repositioning of golf as a sport cool enough to attract bona fide athletes.
And yet, the sport continues to be controlled by groups like the U.S. Golf Association, the R&A and the PGA Tour, which administer the rules as if operating in a smoke-filled backroom.
Consider the USGA and R&A, which allowed golfers to use the anchored putting stroke for more than four decades without a dissenting word. Then, after three players using the style won majors in the span of two years, they acted to ban it, leaving a trail of confused golfers.
Unlike the major professional sports leagues and even the men's and women's professional tennis tours, the PGA Tour has steadfastly refused to announce fines or suspensions. Tour officials do not acknowledge discipline meted out for acts like throwing a club into the gallery, blowing off a mandatory players meeting, getting into an on-course altercation with another player or walking off the course without finishing a round.
Their reasoning is that in the vast majority of cases, few people know about the original transgression so why broadcast it to the masses? How about to send a clear message to players that there is no place in the game for these behaviors? Or to show tour members that they will be held publicly accountable for their misbehavior, which can itself serve as a strong deterrent?
The exception is doping offenses, but since the PGA Tour initiated its drug-testing policy in 2009, it has ensnared only journeyman golfer Doug Barron,Â who tested positive for testosterone that year.
In the summer of 2011, tour officials warned players about using Ultimate Spray, made of deer antler velvet, and advised Mark Calcavecchia, a one-time major winner, to stop endorsing the product.
A year and a half later, Singh, a three-time major winner and former world No. 1 with 34 tour victories, is on the record saying he used deer antler spray "every couple of hours."
"I'm looking forward to some changes in my body," Singh, a 49-year-old known for his maniacal fitness regimen, said in Sports Illustrated. "It's really hard to feel the difference if you're only doing it for a couple of months."
In a statement released Wednesday, Singh, who is entered in this week's Waste Management Open, confirmed that he used deer antler spray but said that "at no time was I aware that it may contain a substance that is banned under the PGA Tour anti-doping policy."
"In fact, when I first received the product, I reviewed the list of ingredients and did not see any prohibited substances," he said. "I am absolutely shocked that deer antler spray may contain a banned substance and am angry that I have put myself in this position."
The tour's anti-doping manual, which includes IGF-1 under the heading "Peptide hormones, growth factors and related substances," makes plain that ignorance is not a defense.
It says, "It does not matter whether you unintentionally or unknowingly used a prohibited substance."
It also states, "It is each player's personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance enters his body."
The tour said it had begun a review process, per its anti-doping policy. But if Singh does not end up with a suspension, what message will that send about a sport that, for integrity's sake, expects players to call infractions on themselves?
A player committing a first-time anti-doping rule violation under the program is subject up to a one-year suspension and can be fined up to $500,000.
Bubba Watson, the reigning Masters champion, was asked Wednesday what he knows about deer antler spray.
"I know somehow it's illegal," said Watson, who made it clear he could not imagine using deer antler spray as anything but a punch line. "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."
With its first major doping imbroglio, golf has officially reached the sporting big-time. The question is, will its response befit a sport of its stature?
Â© 2013, The New York Times News Service