Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Is golf immune to drug use?

By Mary Armstrong

Published by the Las Cruces Sun-News 12/17/2010

Drug use in sports continues to be a critical issue.  Steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), amphetamines, beta blockers, narcotics…as detection tests are devised other substances are developed.  It has long been recognized that certain substances can enhance a participant’s performance.  Whether in a person’s skill for whacking a ball into a hole or the ability to chase down a wounded wild pig, men (and women) have looked for an edge.  We also know there is a non-negotiable health price to be paid in all cases. 

In Michael S. Bahrke’s book “Performance-enhancing substances in sport and exercise”, he traces the spread of performance-enhancing drugs to World War II and the practice of “boosting” soldiers.  This was nothing new as it had long been known that different substances could improve soldiers’ performance in battle.  During the Civil War, the coffee ration was at least three to four pints of strong black coffee per day.  Interestingly, cavalry and artillery regiments didn’t use the stuff and they referred to the infantry, rather condescendingly, as “coffee boilers”.  It wasn’t unusual for infantry “stragglers” to stop, build a fire, boil some coffee and drink it, which enabled them to catch up to their regiment before nightfall.  The use of stimulants such as coffee eventually led to experimentation with amphetamines, although it took some 50 years as amphetamines were first developed in 1887. “The use of these ‘pep pills’ by prewar college students, combined with the experiences of servicemen who used them to competitive edge in armed services football appears to have laid the foundation for introduction of amphetamines to professional and collegiate sport at the end of World War II.”

In 1984 the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) became the first sports organization to begin testing of athletes in the United States.  The following year, the NFL became the first of the major professional sport to ban substances and perform testing.  This coincided with then First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” anti-drug campaign and the release of an early “edutainment” video entitled “Stop the Madness”.  The video included a brief appearance by NFL defensive lineman Lyle Alzado who later died of brain cancer which he attributed to his addiction to anabolic steroids. 

But the PGA and LPGA have lagged in testing for performance-enhancing and illegal drugs.  Both tours began “in-competition” testing in 2008.  There have been few actions taken and the programs have been condemned from both sides.  Most noteworthy have been Gary Player, who has stated publicly that he personally knows of at least two PGA tour players that are on performance-enhancing drugs.  On the other side, Nick Faldo has been quoted as saying there is no drug problem in golf and therefore no need to even look into it.  Faldo points to the code of honor in golf, stating “The bottom line is they’re just cheating.  And if you want to play golf, you forget about that from day one.” 

Reality is probably somewhere in the middle.  After all, illicit drug use is pervasive through American society – why would a sub-population of comparatively wealthy athletes be any different?  If anything, the most successful tour players have enough money to do whatever they need to maintain a competitive edge.  But, let’s not sell professional golfers short.  If you’ve followed my column, you know that I think highly of golf as a benefit to society – a “classroom of civic training”. 

So let’s take a look at why golfers would be enticed to take something.  I seriously doubt that anyone would consider steroids only because they can have a horrible effect on your psyche.  And as for being stronger, that isn’t necessarily an advantage when generating a 115 mph swing speed.  Besides, “the woods are full of long hitters” – anyone that is scoring in the three handicap or less range knows that it’s not how far you hit it, but where you hit it.  For the same reason, I think we can disregard HGH.

On the other hand, performance enhancers that help you focus or reduces stress might be tempting.  Several tour players have publicly stated they believe some of their fellow competitors are taking beta blockers.  Beta blockers are legally used to treat high blood pressure, heart arrhythmia and glaucoma, among other disorders.  A part of their effectiveness in this regard is their ability to block the effect of stress hormones on the heart.  As a part of this process, they also block the “fight or flight” impulse which can arise when we are faced with particularly stressful situations.  This “side-effect” of the drug seemingly can reduce stress and permit a higher function in stressful situations.  It has long been used and even prescribed for stage fright for musicians and those that must do public speaking. 

Drugs affect everyone differently.  Beta blockers may calm some people just enough to perform well, but it may put others asleep.  Nick Price took beta blockers in the mid to late 80’s for a heart condition and in his words, “You’re never high, and you’re never low. You’re just blah.”  Price felt that period was the worst of his career.  Amphetamines may help you to concentrate or tolerate, perhaps even enjoy, the monotony of practice, but it’s just as likely to make you overly nervous, restless or even dizzy.  And that’s just the psychophysical symptoms.  The physical side effects are…well, you don’t even want to think about it. 

In summary, I expect there are some tour players that are using illegal drugs or using prescription drugs illicitly.  There are probably those that are using them and thinking that they are getting benefits when in fact the “placebo affect” is the reason.  I am certainly no expert in this subject, but I feel it is an important issue.  I’ve done far more research than I usually do for my weekly column, but I’ve only scratched the surface.  If you are considering using performance-enhancing drugs, I hope you will at least consult with your physician or other knowledgeable person that has your long term health in mind before putting anything into your body.

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010.  She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects.  You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog: https://roadholeshorts17.wordpress.com/.

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