On eve of Players, Singh seeks one more thing from Tour
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Vijay Singh has played in 21 consecutive Players Championships, but that streak is in jeopardy on the eve of the Tour’s flagship event. As third alternate, Singh awaits a call from the Tour while he practices this week at nearby Sawgrass Country Club.
There’s plenty of irony in Singh’s tenuous position. One year ago this week, Singh initiated what has become a protracted legal battle by filing a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against the PGA Tour. Singh contends his reputation was smeared regarding his use of deer antler spray.
The Tour eventually changed its position on the spray in relation to the Tour’s Anti-Doping Program and cleared Singh of any wrongdoing.
A year later, Singh, 51, whose 34 Tour victories include three major championships, continues to play the Tour but has struggled to 56th in the FedEx Cup rankings and 166th in the Official World Golf Ranking.
His legal case has been pared from seven original causes of action to just two, but the case proceeds. Singh cleared a big hurdle when the Tour’s motion to dismiss the case was denied and now hopes to gain access to internal documents regarding the 6-year-old drug-testing program. The documents would illuminate one of the Tour’s best-kept secrets.
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Regardless of how the Singh case might be resolved, one of the biggest issues for the Tour could be Finchem’s role as sole arbiter of the drug policy. In oral arguments during discovery, the Tour’s lawyers disclosed that Finchem has the discretion to treat players differently.
“Because each and every drug case is so entirely unique and limited to its own specific facts of that individual and what he did and how it relates to the program, the commissioner of the PGA Tour is expressly given discretion under the drug program to determine in each separate case what he considers to be the most appropriate outcome,” argued Jeffrey Mishkin, an attorney for Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the Tour’s New York-based outside counsel, according to the court transcript.
“There is not requirement of uniformity of treatment under the drug program. There couldn’t be. The commissioner has every right to treat different cases differently. That’s what he does, and that’s what Mr. Singh agreed to when he signed his membership renewal form.”
Singh ran afoul of the Tour’s drug policy when he conceded in a January 2013 Sports Illustrated article that he used deer-antler spray that reportedly contained IGF-1, an insulin-like growth hormone that was a banned substance.
Historically, the PGA Tour’s position has been that fines, penalties and suspensions – other than for performance-enhancing drugs – would be disclosed only to the offender and those Tour officials with a need to know.
Unlike the head of any other major professional sport, the PGA Tour commissioner seems to have unfettered say in any drug-policy violation. According to the program rules, the commissioner may depart from international standards set by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and his only oversight would concern a positive finding appealed to an arbitrator. However, that arbitrator is selected by the Tour, and no judicial review is available to any Tour member as part of the players’ condition of membership.
“Just because I sign a document saying we have a right to treat you differently, it doesn’t make treating me differently right,” said Paul Goydos, a 22-year Tour veteran. “If that is the case, I am extremely disappointed. If they actually feel that and have done that in the past, then they have something to answer for, and that’s ridiculous.”
Only Finchem, 67, who has been commissioner for 20 years, is believed to know how the violations are handled and how similar situations may have been addressed. Players have grumbled that inequity pervades Tour oversight, including administration of the drug policy.
During a news conference July 2, 2008, at the AT&T National, which was the week when the Tour’s drug policy took effect, Finchem said he saw no reason to disclose information about the testing, not even the names of players being screened.
“We will probably provide some gross statistics on the program at the end of this year or sometime next year in terms of numbers of people, numbers of tests,” Finchem said. “We may do something like that. This is just the way we set the program up. We feel like it’s the best way to go about it, and we’re not trying to give it a high, high profile.”
Finchem said twice in the same news conference that once all appeals were exhausted, the Tour would disclose something about any violation.
“As I said earlier, at the end of the process, we will in all likelihood, I don’t know exactly what information we’ll provide, but we would provide information that there’s been a positive test and there’s been an adjudication of that as a result,” Finchem said. “The form that that takes exactly, we have not finished, that would be my guess. As soon as we get a positive test, we’ll get right to work on it.”
Since the program took effect in mid-2008, the PGA Tour has supplied no statistics regarding the players tested, number of tests administered or the cost of the testing.
However, one year after testing began, Finchem told the media at the 2009 AT&T that there had been no drug suspensions and that the Tour did not have a doping problem.
When pressed about whether there had been any positive tests for recreational drugs, Finchem declined to provide details.
“We may have had some test results that trouble us in other areas that we treat in a different bucket,” Finchem said. “But we don’t publicize those. We treat those as ‘conduct unbecoming.’ ”
Regarding a potential for positive tests, Finchem said, “We don’t have a problem in that area.”
In the year since Singh sued the Tour, most of the potential for transparency had been eliminated. The Tour would say only that it found some instances of recreational drug use.
“Nondisclosure, I can probably understand why the Tour doesn’t want to disclose anything because that’s just a whole lot of paperwork that nobody needs to be prying their noses in,” said Stuart Appleby, when asked about the comments in the Singh hearing. “But it does make it potentially sound like the Tour can do what it wishes. . . . I think the Tour made a statement that they pretty much puffed their chest out and said this is the way we feel about it, but you ask a player and I can’t see a player going, ‘That’s fair enough. We like one rule for one and another rule for him.’ No way. No player wants that.”
Players contacted by Golfweek want transparency in the drug program, but the Tour is loath to open its books for fear of harming sponsor relations.
“There’s arguments both ways,” said Jim Furyk, a Policy Board member. “To be transparent and have it out there is good on one end, and then there’s no doubt or feeling of hiding or concealing anything, but also from a public-relations standpoint it’s not something that you want people talking about the PGA Tour, as well. But if it’s happening, it’s happening.”
The players don’t want a commissioner with absolute power. If the drug-testing program were transparent, players might better understand the commissioner’s actions in the Singh case.
That’s why the Singh case could be so pivotal.
“It sounds like a bit of a door is being swung open potentially for some persons and not others,” Goydos said. “I would like to think that the Tour would enact codes of behavior, drug policies, any form of a slap on the wrist would be dealt with the same way for a top player or a kid who had just got his first week on Tour.”
And especially for a Hall of Fame player looking for a spot in the Tour’s hometown event.