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Gary Player Deserves a Mulligan

By: Jeff Shelley


Golf legend Gary Player put his foot squarely in his mouth last week when, almost cavalierly, he remarked that he knew "some golfers" took steroids. Player's comments, which came during the British Open at Carnoustie, were exacerbated by his refusal to identify the miscreants.

Player was quoted during his interview session at the Open Championship as saying: "I would say there (are) 10 guys taking something. I might be way out. Definitely (the number is) not going to be lower, but (it) might be a hell of a lot more. And I'm delighted to see that they're going to start having tests at random, if that's what they officially have decided."

When asked how he, in fact, knew there were players using enhancements, Player dug himself a deeper hole. "Because one guy told me," he announced. "One guy told me and I took an oath prior to him telling me, and he told me and I won't tell you where, but he told me what he did and I could see this massive change in him and then - and somebody else told me something that I also promised I wouldn't tell that verified others had done it."

Player was immediately taken to task by the media and some PGA Tour veterans, including fellow South African Retief Goosen, who said he was "shocked" at the claims. "I don't know if he is trying to damage the sport. If he wants to come and make these comments, why doesn't he name them? I respect Gary Player, he is a good friend, and we get along very well, but I don't know what he was trying to prove."

Ireland's Paul McGinley, a staunch supporter of drug testing who believes "as a sport we have nothing to hide," remarked, "Maybe he [Player] should be asked what he knows and we can bring it out."

Australia's Rod Pampling added: "I don't think anyone should stand up and say there are definitely people using drugs and then not name them. Name the people if you want to make it a worthy statement."

American Steve Stricker responded: "I really thought we had clean players, maybe we don't. It's going to be such a long time before it's in place that I don't think, by that time, anybody is going to test positive for anything."

Stuart Hall, a golf columnist for WRAL in North Carolina and www.pgatour.com, opined that Player, in refusing to name names, "hid behind some lame excuse," likening the 71-year-old to his child. "That's like my 8-year-old daughter telling me she has a secret, but she promised her friend that she wouldn't tell anyone. Then why even bring it up?"

The latter question resonates, and perhaps that's the saddest outcome of all this because, of the thousands of golfers who've teed it up in professional tournaments - including the famous and the also-rans, Player has been one of the most honest, forthright, and accessible to ever stroll down a fairway.

The 5' 7" 150-pounder, one of the few golfers in history to win all four major championships (nine in all), has always exhibited a bright-eyed feistiness on and off the course that has endeared him to both the media and millions of golf fans. Perhaps that stems from his early-on enlightening and vehement opposition to the Apartheid practices in his native country (in the turbulent '60s, he made sure to have a black caddie).

While many players dance around issues, seemingly preferring to be anywhere else but before a phalanx of microphones, Gary Player has always jutted out his jaw and thoughtfully answered the most tedious and difficult of questions. He's also been refreshingly available to golf fans, spending the extra minute - like his old rival Arnold Palmer - after a round, while others dance into the locker room to escape the endless autograph requests.

Player propounds a wonderfully expansive view of the world of golf and, invariably, it's of uncommon optimism. His glass, more than 99 percent of the time, is half-full. And, most importantly, of all the great golfers who've been spotlighted on the game's stage, none has enjoyed Player's unassailable character. That stems from an enduring sense of self, one that has led him - through a relentless workout regimen - to look about the same today as when he emerged on the scene in the middle of the last century.

One interested observer, Dick Pound, praised Player for his forthrightness. "I think it's a great forward step," said the chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "Gary Player is somebody with no axe to grind. It's not as if someone out there who's finished third is complaining about someone who finished ahead of him. He's beyond that and is speaking for the good of the game. I think they should be paying a lot of attention to the matter."

In June, before Player's comments, Pound questioned the PGA Tour's lack of policy about steroids and other chemical "enhancements." In comments to Sports Illustrated, Pound pre-empted Player's revelations by writing: "There are enough warning signals to suggest that action should be taken sooner rather than later. Body shapes on Tour are changing. Perhaps not all of the extra distance off the tee can be attributed to technology or improved fitness. If there is a problem, better to eliminate it before it becomes ingrained, as it has in far too many other sports, professional and amateur. To do otherwise courts the athlete's Lowest Common Denominator - rationalization: 'I had to do it because others were, and no system existed to catch the cheaters.' It is an all-too-familiar refrain, however unconvincing, proffered in quasi-defense of ethical failure."

Yet it's still surprising that Player, he of 163 career victories around the globe, let loose such a cannonade, particularly in front of the Open media and its British-centric tabloid press.

It would be a shame if Player's flawless career ends up tainted by his rash words. I tend to agree with Hall, who said: "Player's comments were a step in the right direction for golf in terms of addressing an issue that is pervasive throughout all of sport. Unfortunately, Player could have gone one step further and chose not to, which is almost like two steps back for the game."

My hope is that golfers worldwide will give Mr. Player a mulligan this time around. And that the PGA Tour gets its head out of the bunker and takes his comments as a challenge to see if there are golfers using illegal drugs by implementing certifiable testing programs.

Just because he spoke his mind, Gary Player shouldn't be painted alongside the NBA's Tim Donaghy, the NFL's Pacman Jones or, worse, Michael Vick, nor baseball's soon-to-be homer champion.

Golf, after all, is a game of sportsmanship, and an almost obsessive one at that. These worthy traits have never been more embodied than within the person of Gary Player.