Commentary

Micheel case raises more PED questions

Originally Published: November 13, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

While Doug Barron was in court seeking to have his suspension lifted, Shaun Micheel was across town in Memphis on Friday reliving his own nightmare that concerns the PGA Tour's drug-testing policy -- the one that got Barron suspended for a year.

Barron on Nov. 2 became the first PGA Tour player suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

On Friday, he was in U.S. District Court in Memphis asking for an injunction that would allow him to play next week at the second stage of PGA Tour Qualifying.

Micheel, a friend of Barron's who won the 2003 PGA Championship, has been given a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) to take testosterone -- one of the drugs for which Barron has been suspended.

And indirectly, that is one of the reasons Barron was in court.

"The rules have not been applied uniformly," said Art Thorne, Barron's agent and attorney, as he waited to hear if his client would get to play golf next week. "We feel as though there are parts of the anti-doping statute that have been put in place that are arbitrary."

Both of their stories give a hint as to just how complicated drug testing in golf can and will be.

"The process just nearly drove me out of the game," Micheel said Friday from his home in Memphis, where he was preparing to compete next week in a second-stage PGA Tour qualifier. "I thought, 'Why am I doing this? I don't want to play golf if I have to go through this.'"

Although the tour does not disclose what a player tests positive for, Thorne said that Barron failed a drug test administered in June when he competed in the Memphis St. Jude Classic.

Barron tested positive for testosterone and a beta blocker, both of which had been prescribed legally by a doctor. The PGA Tour disclosed Friday that last year Barron applied for -- and was denied -- a therapeutic use exemption for the drugs.

Thorne, however, claimed that Barron was in the process of weaning himself off the beta blocker propranolol with a substitute medication -- that had been approved to be used. Thorne also said Barron has been taking these medications for years.

"This is different than the blatant doping stories, like Marion Jones," Thorne said. "That is what is disheartening to us. You can look at Doug. He is a personal friend of mine. He wasn't doing this to gain any advantage. He just wanted to be healthy. It would be different if he took something by accident. This is a situation where it took him some time to wean off the drugs and the tour knew that. It was just longer than they wanted him to."

The PGA Tour, other than to acknowledge that Barron requested the TUEs last year and was denied, had no comment.

Micheel has been taking prescribed testosterone for several years and said he went through months of anguish in order to get the exemption he felt necessary to remain healthy and continue his career.

"I was filled with all sorts of questions about what was going to happen to me if I'm not allowed to take this medication," Micheel said. "Will I just feel terrible every day? I was told for me to have a performance gain [by taking testosterone], I'd have to bathe in the stuff every day. I take it for therapeutic reasons -- a little bit I rub onto my shoulder every day.

"But it was a process [getting the TUE] that nearly sent me over the edge."

Micheel, 40, began experiencing symptoms in 2004 that had him feeling lethargic and irritable.

At first, he thought it simply might have been stress, the rigors of the game and travel. His wife, Stephanie, had a baby a few months after he won the PGA at Oak Hill, and Micheel could think of a million reasons why he might not be feeling right.

It wasn't until early in the 2005 golf season that he figured something was wrong. He withdrew from a tournament because he simply didn't want to be there, and figured there was something more to his issues. After visiting doctors and getting tested, Micheel learned that he had low testosterone -- and a level that was more common for a retired male than one in his 30s.

Micheel began taking a medication called "The Clear" that he rubs onto his shoulder every night, and he even became a spokesman for the drug company. He told his story at PGA Tour events and tried to help raise awareness for men who might not know from what they were suffering.

All of this was before the PGA Tour had a drug-testing policy.

Late in the 2007 season, when Micheel learned that the tour would begin testing the following summer, he realized he was going to need to get permission to continue taking his medication; he would fail a drug test otherwise.

And that is where his story gets very complicated.

The short version is that Micheel's doctor reports would not be good enough for him to get a TUE. He started the process in early 2008, making two trips to the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. He also later went to Emory in Atlanta at the request of the PGA Tour.

At one point during the process, Micheel was told that he would have to completely stop taking his medication for a period of six to eight weeks in order for tests to be run so that it could be determined if he qualified for an exemption.

Micheel was reluctant to go off the medication, but complicating matters was a shoulder injury that required surgery in June 2008. Micheel figured that would be a good time to stop taking his testosterone medication. "I figured if I was going to be cranky, I'd be cranky anyway from the shoulder surgery," he said.

For several months, Micheel did not take the medication, and an endless procession of paperwork shuffling and tests ensued. At one point, Micheel said, the process became "adversarial," and he was informed that in the history of the Olympics, a TUE for testosterone was very rare.

Of course, that leads to the many arguments made about why drug testing is not necessary in golf, that pure strength does not necessarily lead to lower scores. It remains one of the reasons why drug testing in the sport is controversial.

For every player who says it is a good thing, there is another who says that performance-enhancing drugs do not help you get the golf ball in the hole, as they might help a football player block and tackle or a baseball player hit home runs.

"In my humble opinion, it doesn't help," Micheel said. "At least at the levels I take [them]. My prescription gets me to a testosterone level that is still below that of men my age. I don't look any different. The connotation with testing and steroids in general is these muscle-building-type guys. I look the same as I always have -- and that was my whole issue. I understand this could be a performance-enhancing drug, but at what level?"

Micheel was granted the TUE last November, and it was extended for two years. That means in late 2010, he expects to have to go off the drugs for a minimum of six to eight weeks and go through the blood-testing process again in order to get another exemption.

"The season is not short enough where I can get back into the normal levels and be back on a level playing field," Micheel said. "I'm not trying to be overly dramatic, but if I'm off [the drugs] for six weeks and we really only have a six-week break, then it takes another month or two to get my [testosterone] level back up. I'm worried about it. It had a huge effect on me mentally, wondering about my career and what would happen if I had to get off this medicine."

Because of the shoulder surgery, Micheel played the 2009 season on a major medical extension and had 13 events to earn $694,924, which, coupled with his earnings of $157,828, would have equaled No. 125 on the 2008 money list.

Micheel earned just more than $250,000 this year, however, meaning he is no longer exempt and must return to Q-school to get his playing card, play out of the past champions category or rely on sponsor exemptions.

"I am grateful I was able to go through the process correctly, the way the tour required, and ultimately they gave me the TUE," Micheel said. "But I'm not looking forward to having to come off the medicine again and go through the whole process again."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE