x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Vijay Singh cannot be treated any differently

Players were warned about Deer-Antler spray, so the US PGA has no choice to ban the Fijian.

Vijay Singh is facing a ban from golf.
Vijay Singh is facing a ban from golf.

If Lee Westwood was faking it, just to avoid offering a hard opinion, the man has a certain future in Hollywood.

After finishing the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic yesterday, the former world No 1 learnt of the controversy in the United States that has enveloped Vijay Singh, who faces a possible doping suspension for using a banned substance.

Westwood shrugged and said it was the first he had heard of it. "It" being both the controversy and the wisecrack-inducing substance itself.

"Deer-antler spray?" Westwood said, repeating the offending substance. "Sounds like something you'd wax your car with."

It has left the US PGA Tour on the horns of a dilemma, for sure, as officials consider taking potentially heavy sanctions against a player who, in the mid-2000s, routinely topped Tiger Woods when the latter was at the peak of his powers.

Even though the US tour sent out alerts to players several months ago about the deer-antler substance, noting that it was prohibited because of its performance-enhancing qualities, Singh said on Wednesday that he has used it, while insisting that he did not know it was banned.

The jibes have fast followed, regarding Bambi, Santa Claus and Bullwinkle - anything relating to antlers - but the topic itself has few people laughing.

Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the US tour, has said unequivocally that his most saleable product is the reputation of his players, and Singh has gored holes in that image.

Rarely does a topic surface in the niche game of golf that makes waves throughout the rest of sport. But when it involves a former world No 1, World Golf Hall of Famer and past player of the year on both the US and European tours, everybody not only takes notice, but cringes.

Singh told a national magazine in the States that he administered deer-antler spray, which allegedly has recuperative value, and all but offered a testimonial for the product. Now a US tour that has, at times, been sanctimonious in describing the wholesomeness of its players is faced with a nasty public-relations mess.

"He was obviously ignorant of the fact it was a banned substance," said Colin Montgomerie, who at 49 is the same age as the Fijian. "But is ignorance innocence?"

That is the global question du jour, and it will have major implications. The nature of the violation, the holes in the game's doping test procedures and the celebrity of the party involved has made "deer antlers" the most-mentioned term at Emirates Golf Club.

And Singh is not even entered.

Though US players reportedly were warned specifically about the deer-antler spray, the PGA Tour's drug programme does not screen for that particular substance. Thus, Singh has not technically failed a drug test.

"Listen, people have had to pay the price before and he should be no different," said Mark O'Meara, a two-time major champion who shot 67 at Emirates yesterday. "If the commissioner and the tour feels he needs to be suspended for X amount of time, I think Vijay is man enough that he'll do that."

He would not have a choice.

Singh could, and probably should, be facing a lengthy stretch on the bench. The only other player to have been suspended for a drug violation by the US tour, the virtually irrelevant journeyman player Doug Barron, was banned for a year, although he took a risk by knowingly taking a banned testosterone cream.

Treating Singh differently would leave the tour, if not the entire sport, open to criticism about an enforcement double standard for players who actually matter.

A ban would put a serious dent in Singh's career legacy, which is hardly sterling. Early in his career, he was suspended by an Asian tour over cheating allegations. The player with the most wins in his 40s in US tour history, he has been the target of ceaseless player rumours as it relates to his ability to bash hundreds of balls in practice on a daily basis, seemingly with no ill medical effect.

Unwittingly or not, Singh ordered US$8,000 (Dh29,300) in banned substances from a company of dubious reputation, which will only fan the speculative flames even faster.

"I know what you're saying," Montgomerie said of the decades-old innuendo. "It will have to come down to the PGA Tour and what they feel. They will have to decide if it is bad for the sport, if and when a ban takes place."

There are few ifs about it.

Said Bubba Watson, who is playing in the US tour event this week in Phoenix, where Singh is entered: "We should check people for mental problems if they're taking deer-antler spray."

Singh could soon be a global pariah. George O'Grady, the commissioner of the European Tour, confirmed yesterday that a ban in the States would be upheld by other major global circuits.

While Singh can continue to play while his case is reviewed, any earnings would be wiped from the books retroactively if a suspension is rendered.

"This, a drug thing, if that's what it was, whatever the PGA Tour would do, we would support," O'Grady said.

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