Steroid talk puts Player in bad light

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland - It's been a perfectly tabloid-ish British Open, and the tournament is only one day old.

First there was Seve Ballesteros retiring in the wake of erroneous attempted suicide reports.

Then there was Nick Faldo causing a media manufactured row with comments that chumminess and pampering might have contributed to the on-going drought of European major winners.

Then an R&A rules official prompted a scandal and spate of apologies with several racist "jokes" that bombed during the Association of Golf Writers dinner Tuesday night.

Adding a little on-course intrigue, world No. 1 Tiger Woods drew cries of favoritism Thursday when another rules official gave him dubious relief from television cables that were mysteriously deemed immovable.

All of that - and John Daly in contention - might have been delicious enough for the British tabloid empire that failed desperately to stoke up any ribald comments from Adam Scott regarding Maria Sharapova's offer to "play mixed doubles" with the Australian heartthrob.

But then Wednesday evening Gary Player inexplicably was invited to the interview room and dropped a little innuendo that golf just might be rife with performance-enhancing drug use.

Let's just say it wasn't the provocative Page 2 girls who got the media centre tingling with excitement.

Player's curious, unsubstantiated and unspecific rant about knowing for certain about one or two golfers who admitted privately to him that they've used performance enhancers caused a stir.

At least among the press corps.

Most of the players (and probably all of the fans) didn't know anything about it and if they did expressed serious doubts about the authenticity of the Presidents Cup captain's information. They weren't even sure if Player was talking about a player on one of the world's top tours or one of his peers on the Champions Tour.

"I'm actually very shocked at his comments," said Retief Goosen, another South African and friend of Player. "I don't know what Gary was trying to prove, saying what he said. ... I don't know if he is trying to damage the sport, damage golf."

Harsh words from a countryman about a man who considers himself an international ambassador for golf. But with all due respect to Player - one of golf's five career slam holders - he deserves the criticism.

Frankly, you put the words "steroids" and "golf" in the same story and it might have the same effect as taking two Ambiens. But when you start recklessly throwing accusations and guesses about at least 10 golfers taking performance enhancers based on one or two anonymous private confessions of unknown origin, it awakens anger in even the most placid of golfing souls.

"If he wants to come and make these comments, why doesn't he name them?" said Goosen, the most electrified he's been since being struck by lightning as a young man. "If he wants to damage the sport by starting to say things like that, then he must come out and say it. He mustn't make these half comments."

Both the European and PGA tours have started to prepare for a drug testing program in the future, and every single player to a man welcomes the idea. Everybody wants a "clean" sport, whether or not they have any idea what clean really means. Is it just steroids or Creatine or human growth hormone or beta blockers or marijuana or a beer at the turn?

Golf, however, isn't like other sports. Strength certainly matters, but it's not the ultimate determinate of who wins a tournament. When Barry Bonds* and Mark McGwire* taint the power records in baseball, that's one thing. But unless you're talking about the long-drive competition in the club member-guest, it's not the strongest who wins the title in golf.

"There's still some debate whether steroids or something will even help you in golf," said Trevor Immelman, another South African golfer and admirer of Player. "At the end of the day, you've still got to hole that 5-footer. I don't think steroids will help you with that."

Doubtful.

Still, the ruling bodies in golf should institute some kind of testing system and penalty measures to shut up the speculation. And they should start by testing all of Gary Player's closest friends.

In the meantime, Player should stick with his old rivals Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and rant against the juiced equipment that has help ruin some of the greatest courses.

At least then you can start naming names like Titleist and TaylorMade and Ping and Callaway.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com

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