Friday, November 17, 2017
Golf

A hush over punishments on PGA Tour leads only to whispers

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH — As a 9-year-old, Jay Monahan engaged in conduct unbecoming of a gentleman golfer, pouting and overreacting to poor shots during a competitive round. After he came off the course, his father's mother, Anne, known affectionately as Granny Annie, waited until they were alone and then delivered a stern lecture.

Monahan said he has never needed another reminder about how to act on the course.

"She wanted to use that as a teaching moment for me," Monahan said, "and it worked."

But Monahan, now 47 and in his first year as the commissioner of the PGA Tour, seems less certain about the best way to deal with players who misbehave. At the Players Championship last week, he conveyed conflicting views on the tour's disciplinary measures and the secrecy that surrounds most of the punishments imposed on players who run afoul of rules on drug use, personal comportment and professional conduct.

Unlike other professional sports, golf does not disclose the fines or suspensions levied on its athletes, who are subject to punishment if they throw a club, let loose a profanity, berate a volunteer, fail a test for recreational drugs or engage in other behavior deemed "unbecoming of a professional." Only in the rare cases when a player tests positive for a performance-enhancing drug has the discipline been made public.

While the policy appears to protect the players from public scrutiny, it has also left them vulnerable to ugly speculation — abetted by social media — when they take an unexpected break or a chunk of time off. It has also left the tour open to criticism that it cares more about maintaining its public image than about addressing personal behavior that is detrimental to the game.

In an interview Wednesday, Monahan indicated that he recognized the flaws in the tour's long-standing system.

"We're having a discussion right now with our Players Advisory Council on a number of issues, one of which is disclosures and transparency," Monahan said.

At a news conference the day before, Monahan said he was "very comfortable" with the way discipline had been meted out.

"I think the ultimate deciding factor for us is that the system works," he said, echoing the view of his predecessor, Tim Finchem. In February 2015, Finchem said: "We take the view that there isn't any necessity to broadcast when we have conduct issues. We feel like the level of the conduct issues that we deal with, almost 100 percent, do not require us to from a fan interest and demand."

But consider how the tour's refusal to disclose punishments has affected Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1 and reigning U.S. Open champion, and tour player of the year. Last weekend's Wells Fargo Championship was Johnson's first tournament since he pulled out of the Masters because of a back injury sustained on the eve of the tournament.

Several days before his return to competition, Golfweek magazine published a feature about Johnson and said he suffered the injury when he "reportedly fell on a flight of stairs."

The details of Johnson's fall were provided by his agent, David Winkle, and Johnson and his brother, Austin, who is his caddie, have consistently corroborated Winkle's account. And yet there was widespread speculation — some of which made it into newspapers the week of the Masters — that the report of the accident was a smoke screen, perhaps hiding some disciplinary action imposed by the tour.

Johnson, 32, has never officially been suspended by the tour, but he has twice been sidelined for an extended period. He missed nearly three months, a span that included the 2012 Masters, while recovering from injuries attributed to a water-scooter accident, but upon his return, Winkle, his agent, had to address rumors that Johnson had failed a drug test and had been in rehab. Johnson took a six-month voluntary leave beginning in August 2014 for what he described as personal reasons. A report by golf.com ascribed that absence to a third failed test for recreational drugs.

Johnson's history illustrates the inherent flaw in the tour's policy. If the punishment is a dish served up for public consumption, the general appetite is sated when the fine is announced or the suspension is served. But when nothing is made public, rumors rush to fill the vacuum, trapping players in a kind of character purgatory, their names never publicly sullied but not exactly pristine.

"In Dustin's case, he's created some skepticism," said Robert Garrigus, who abused alcohol and recreational drugs when he was younger, before the tour instituted testing, and is transparent about his past in the hope of helping others. "So any time he does something, it's, 'Hey, is this real or not?' "

Until the tour raises the blinds on its disciplinary policy, all that Johnson and the people in his inner circle can do is tune out the rumors, speculation and innuendo. "It doesn't say much about the world we live in today," Winkle wrote in an email.

Athletes are routinely caught cheating in other sports. And contrary to its carefully polished public image, golf has been no different. A biography about the tour's second commissioner, Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force, contained an anecdote about an unnamed player on what was then the senior tour who was accused by multiple players of improperly marking his ball on the green so that it was closer to the hole.

Beman, who was commissioner from 1974-94, gave the player a choice: Voluntarily step away from the tour for a specified period or face a full-fledged investigation into the charges. The player opted for the personal leave.

Last month, five-time major winner Phil Mickelson suggested that players on the regular tour are getting away with mismarking their balls on the greens for their own gain. If the tour identifies the offenders, shouldn't the other players know who they are?

Lee Westwood thinks so.

"They've clearly done something wrong, you know, and maybe gained an edge on their fellow competitors," he said, "so it's only right their fellow competitors should find out what it is they've done."

With golf well represented in social media and fantasy leagues, it's increasingly likely that a protracted absence by any player would attract attention. Long gone are the days when any player could disappear for a time without setting off a hailstorm of hashtags on Twitter.

"This is an area where you're likely to see us making adjustments as we go forward," Monahan said in the interview. "It's not because we think it's a big problem. It's because the world's changed."

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