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Men of Honor

Are golfers cheating by using the latest technology?

The best byproducts from writing columns on this site are your responses. Most are intelligent and thought-provoking, but some astonish the senses. Yet, all are welcome, along with the passionate debates and interaction.

Last week was no exception. Realizing everyone has opinions (and the absolute right to express them), it still surprised me when an avalanche of e-mails dared to oppose my stance on golf being the most honest sport. The responses made me wonder if I'm completely unaware of the public sentiment regarding the game.

Many mirrored this comment:

You dummy! Golf's cheating is embedded in the sport like no other. It lies in the "technology." All the cheaters race to get the next "edge" in equipment others do not possess. The cheating has gotten so extreme that venerable golf courses are rendered obsolete. You are too close to the sport, dummy!
--Tom Praska

Okay, name calling aside, let's delve into this further. Does improved (and sanctioned) technology illegally help professional golfers?

I guess it depends on your mentality.

Look at other sports and their advancements. Do graphite and fiberglass poles illegally assist pole vaulters in achieving higher records? Poles were once made of bamboo and later out of metal pipe. The inflexibility of the metal would force a vaulter to run 40 mph to achieve the heights hit today.

You also have track surfaces. Up until the 1960's, all running surfaces were cinder and clay. Most world-class tracks today employ polyurethane, which offers better rebound qualities that return more energy to the foot and permit athletes to reach greater speeds than running on asphalt tracks. Should we remove all track records performed on newer surfaces?

Baseball gloves are peach baskets compared to the tiny mitts of yesteryear and improve the a fielder's ability to rob base hits. Athletic footwear is better, football helmets are safer, the padding stronger and lighter. Are domed stadiums considered cheating since they insure perfect playing conditions?

I hate to break the news, but technology advancement is here to stay. Sure, the media and some players mourn that older courses are becoming obsolete, but doesn't everything have a limited shelf life? Old stadiums are demolished for newer models. What were once considered state-of-the-art courses are now woefully inadequate for the today's game.

Now, I'm not advocating blowing up classic old tracks (I'm still a big fan of them), but times are a changing. If you can't lengthen the courses then you apply Darwin's Theory: Nothing is the same as before and those unable to adjust suffer the consequences.

Sports have a history of checks and balances. Baseball lowered the pitching mounds in the '60s to combat pitching domination. The NFL tweaks its rules to allow offenses a greater chance to succeed.

It's the same for golf. Technology will never backtrack. We all want the latest and greatest. It's safe to assume everyone who's crying that technology is killing golf are also not hitting persimmon woods and balata balls. I guarantee you the self-appointed media watchdogs are utilizing every available technological advancement. Sure, you can say it's merely keeping up with the status quo -- but what's wrong with that?

I remember several conversations with ex-USGA equipment detective Frank Thomas about the overabundance of advanced technology. Given that his team routinely rejected new designs as non-conforming, Thomas also stated, "There's absolutely nothing from an equipment standpoint that guarantees excellent play every time."

And, for those who fear today's extraordinary distance is ruining the game, remember noted short bunker Fred Funk took this year's Player's Championship by hitting fairways, greens and sinking putts.

Then there was this surprisingly common response:

What about laser surgery for your eyes -- I read an article last year talking about Woods' laser surgery and that he, and others, now have better than average/normal vision and the players stated outright they can read the greens better than before?
--Adam Bryk, Toronto, Canada

Wow, now laser surgery is cheating? Come on folks! This might be the craziest conspiracy theory since the moon was thought to be made of cheese. Employing Lasek surgery to improve eyesight is hardly an illegal advantage for golfers today -- or any other athlete. If that's the case, then surely eye glasses or contacts should be banned as well. All Lasek does is prevent fogging glasses or the whip of sand and wind with contacts. If this constitutes an illegal advantage, maybe we should outlaw antibiotics, allergy medications, vaccinations and athletic surgery. For that matter, let's ban sunglass lenses that block out certain light waves to allow better course vision. Taking advantage of medical advances (sans illegal drugs) is not only everyone's right but darn foolish to ignore.

Finally:

I think some of the players, male and female, would not pass a steroid use test. It is likely steroid use partially accounts for the longer hitting. Not all steroid use causes rages. Multimillionaire golfers can afford the expense of specially formulated doses. If you don't think some are using steroids, you are kidding yourself or writing PR articles for the Tour.
--Harry Walsh, Marshalls Creek, Pa.

It was a refreshing article you just ran about drugs not being found in golf, but it is not entirely accurate. I was an intercollegiate golfer for a major Division-I college, and have plenty of friends on Tour. I can say without question drugs -- though on a small scale -- have been used to enhance performance in golf for years. Guys smoke pot quite frequently on Tour to stay focused and calm, and take beta blockers for the same reason. It is in ALL sports -- unfortunately.
--Jimmy Vespe

I'll admit these are compelling points. On the surface, golf ability wouldn't appear to benefit from steroids or other illegal performance enhancers. Yet for some, desperate times call for desperate measures and the cheating mind is not only smart, but always ahead of the law.

There are reports the Royal and Ancient, golf's world rules and development body, are working on a new drug policy in response to Tour player Craig Parry's claim that beta-blocker use is widespread.

However, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said, "The matter has been raised twice in the past five or six years. In neither case were we persuaded that the particular suggestions or comments that were made at those times indicated a need to make changes or policies. We don't recognize a definable list of so-called performance enhancements in this sport. Nobody has yet to make a case that there is such an enhancement."

Unfortunately, this smacks of ostrich head-in-the-sand behavior. There isn't even a rule against drinking alcohol before play (unless it leads to unbecoming conduct). By instituting a consistent drug policy, the game hopefully would send the pro-active message of doing everything possible to remain above suspicion.

Ignoring the insinuations allows too many questions and innuendos. Golf officials shouldn't assume their sport is clean given the inherent human frailties that arise from the pressure to perform at the highest level. If you have nothing to hide, what's the harm in regular testing?

However, I'll prepare for readers to claim sunscreen, magnetic bracelets and extra-long tees are unfair.

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