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Rubenstein: Golfers no less credulous than other athletes

The news that three-time major champion Vijay Singh has admitted to using deer-antler spray, which contains IGF-1, a performance-enhancing substance banned by the World Anti Doping Agency and the PGA Tour, has, understandably, become a huge story. Aside from the question of what the PGA Tour plans to do about Singh's violation of its rules – if it intends to do anything at all – his admission opens up a subject that is rarely discussed. That's the degree to which PGA Tour players (indeed, athletes generally) will believe claims that have no basis in science.

David Epstein and George Dohrmann broke the story in the Feb. 4 issue of Sports Illustrated . Singh told them that he paid $9,000 to S.W.A.T.S. – Sports with Alternatives to Steroids – the two-man company that provided him the spray. His payment covered not only the spray, which he told the writers he "uses every couple of hours…every day," but other materials.

The materials include light beams and hologram chips. Epstein and Dohrmann wrote that Singh "sleeps with the beam ray on and has put chips on his ankles, waist and shoulders." He told them, "I'm looking forward to some change in my body. It's really hard to feel the difference if you're only doing it for a couple of months."

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Singh issued a statement on Wednesday that he did not know that deer-antler spray contained IGF-1, a human growth hormone that every major pro sport prohibits. He effectively pleaded ignorance, which is no excuse under the PGA Tour doping rules. Singh withdrew Thursday morning from the Waste Management Phoenix Open, citing "back soreness."

Epstein and Dohrmann write that deer IGF-1 "may not even work in humans." Christopher Key, one of the two principals in S.W.A.T.S., said of the company's products, "We don't have to prove that this is real or not. What we're looking for is for [science] to prove that it is not real." (With this approach to science in ascendance, are we in for a return to bloodletting and trepanation – drilling a hole in one's head to alleviate seizures and migraines?) Maybe S.W.A.T.S should be an acronym for Sports with an Alternative to Science.

Golfers are no different than other pro athletes. They want to gain an edge. Does that include taking performance-enhancing drugs? In Singh's case, anyway, it does, whether or not he knew it. He should have known. It is the player's responsibility to know what he is putting into his body, and the PGA Tour had notified players that IGF-1 is banned. Meanwhile, the PGA Tour, the United States Golf Association, and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews want to believe that the sport doesn't have a doping problem. Karen Crouse in today's New York Times does an excellent job of looking at this.

Whether or not the PGA Tour, or the European Tour for that matter, has a doping problem, it's clear that pro golfers are no less credulous than other athletes. They want to heal injuries and recover from illnesses. In desperate circumstances, they might look for cures that defy scientific study. Critical thinking is not necessarily a hallmark of their approach. They prefer anecdotal evidence to scientific evidence and are prone to ignoring evidence-based science, in particular, evidence-based medicine. A variety of players, including Fuzzy Zoeller, Fred Funk and Bernhard Langer, provide testimonials for the S.W.A.T.S chip here . They believe it eased their aches and pains.

As the SI writers point out, there's no end to products that athletes can try. The field of sports supplements, they write, "is rife with dubious product claims because it is lightly regulated in the U.S." They write about Power Balance, a company that between 2007 and 2010 sold "millions of silicone bracelets bearing frequency-programmed holographic stickers that were said to offer 'up to a 500 per cent increase in strength, balance and flexibility." They write that a variety of lawsuits about false scientific claims led Power Balance's Australian and American divisions to file for bankruptcy in 2011, when a Chinese creditor bought the company.

Power Balance, based in Lake Forest, Calif., continues to operate. Keegan Bradley, the 2011 PGA Championship winner who is ranked 13th in the world, endorses the product and is featured on the website . Stacy Lewis, the 2012 LPGA Tour player of the year and the third-ranked woman in the world, is also featured. Ricky Barnes, the 2002 U.S. Amateur champion and a winner of one PGA Tour event, is featured. Prominent athletes from many other pro sports also endorse the Power Balance bracelet. A Golf Digest promotion called Golfers Who Give Back that is on the website is organized such that a donation of $15 to The First Tee program is included in the $29.95 cost of the wristband.

Maybe because I attended last week's PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando where there was no end of snake oil (didn't spot the deer-antler spray) on offer to supposedly help golfers improve, I ran out to buy the current issue of Skeptic Magazine. It makes for fascinating reading, as does every issue of this and Skeptical Inquirer, magazines that focus on science, not anecdote or wishful thinking. Athletes who endorse sketchy products might want to examine these journals before they start using or flogging hologram chips, bracelets, light beams, "negatively-charged" water, or antler juice.

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As it happens, Skeptical Inquirer published a study in its January/February 2012 issue to determine whether Power Balance bracelets helped improve strength, flexibility and balance as advertised. The conclusion? "Although the bracelet might have some value as a sort of rabbit's foot meant to boost one's confidence, Power Balance bracelets are a bust as a boon to one's athletic prowess."

It's not surprising that golfers are so credulous when it comes to whatever they think might help them. Golf is a tough and individual game that tests a player's mettle at every tournament. The PGA Tour week after week provides a forum for all manner of advice from a startling array of hucksters, and lots of players fall for their pitches. I'll never forget seeing a fellow wearing a badge saying he was a sports psychologist. I asked him about a concept based on the work of the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner. He had no idea about Skinner, which would be akin to a swing coach not knowing about Ben Hogan.

Singh's admission that he has used a prohibited substance has opened a window on how fragile and vulnerable many tour golfers are. Whether or not other golfers use banned substances, many choose to pay little attention to any science that's not swing science. They believe, and that's science enough for them.

RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein


Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

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