For the 2016 Tour de France, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the international governing body of cycling, used thermal cameras to prevent “mechanical doping.” Mechanical doping in cycling is a method of cheating by using a hidden motor to help propel a racing bicycle. In the six years prior to 2016, rumors and incidents of motors installed within bike frames had cast yet another cloud over the sport’s purity.
While these small motors could propel bikes only a fraction faster, the advantage gradually became substantial over grueling, weeks-long races. Legendary cyclist Greg LeMond estimated that mechanical doping could “shave an extra few minutes off one’s time.” LeMond said he believes that some cyclists seek that covert advantage on the Grand Tours, including on the Tour de France. What’s at stake? A winner’s check of €500,000, less than a third of the victor’s share of the purse at this week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
X vs. the R&A
At this past weekend’s Open Championship, the R&A conducted a random test of 30 players’ drivers. Xander Schauffele and three other players were informed that they had non-conforming drivers in their bags. This is the first known occasion of failed tests of this kind, even though distance and technology are hot topics in golf. Somehow, news of Schauffele’s non-conforming Callaway driver got out, and he took his displeasure to the press. A media circus ensued.
The non-conforming test and Schauffele’s comments leave more questions than answers but open up an interesting and important discussion.
Golf thinks of itself as a game of honor. It established this reputation for itself long before the era of ten-million-dollar purses and billion-dollar equipment manufacturers. Perhaps because of the golf world’s persistent belief in its own honor, competitive golfers’ clubs hardly ever get tested. And when they do, the governing bodies typically work with equipment manufacturers, not with players and actual drivers in actual bags.
Last year, the R&A shook things up. In response to rumors of some drivers violating the CT (Characteristic Time) limit, the R&A conducted a driver test at the 2018 Open Championship. CT is the trampoline effect of a driver; the higher the CT, the further it will propel a ball. In his press conference that week, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers explained, “It’s driven by us just trying to keep moving the Championship forward and making it more complete and making sure that there is a service provided to ensure that the players are going out there with clubs that are conforming.”
No failures were reported (emphasis on reported) in 2018, but the R&A had warned players and manufacturers of the test three weeks in advance. Rory McIlroy, a TaylorMade staffer, felt that his company was “singled out a bit more than anyone else.” He added, “A manufacturer is always going to try and find ways to get around what the regulations are. It’s a bit of an arms race.”
At this year’s Open, the R&A conducted another test. Reportedly, they chose 30 players’ drivers and found four non-conforming. This news became public when, following his second-round 66, 24-year-old budding star Xander Schauffele brought up his irritation with the R&A in his post-round press conference. His driver had tested over the CT limit on Tuesday, sending him scrambling for a replacement.
Schauffele’s frustration with the R&A stemmed from two main reasons: he felt that every player in the field should be tested, and that a failed test should remain private.
Regarding the testing, Schauffele said, “I thought it was a little bit unfair. I would gladly give up my driver if it’s not conforming. But there’s still 130 other players in the field that potentially have a nonconforming driver as well.” That’s a valid point. If four drivers out of 30 failed, how many of the 156 competitors in the field must have had a non-conforming driver in play during the championship?
On the issue of confidentiality, Schauffele was blunt: “So The R&A, they pissed me off because they attempted to ruin my image by not keeping this matter private.” Again, considering none of the other test failures became public, Schauffele has an understandable perspective here (though his actions likely made the situation far more public than it would otherwise have been).
But there’s another question his comments raise, perhaps unintentionally: in last year’s test, did zero players fail, or did we just not hear about any?
Ultimately, Schauffele thinks the R&A should have handled things more like the PGA Tour. “I don’t sit at home and test my driver, you know,” he said. “To my best belief, I was playing a conforming driver. I think the R&A’s job… well, the PGA Tour takes it up with the manufacturer. Our job as players is to show up to tournaments, put on a show for the R&A and for the Tour, and to handle our business. It’s not to make sure our stuff is conforming.”
The need for regular testing
It’s fair for players to say they would have a hard time knowing whether their driver is a point or two over the CT limit. But Schauffele is speaking of a different kind of testing, one where the governing bodies test drivers from the manufacturers, not clubs in play. To return to the earlier analogy, what are the chances that Trek would give the UCI a bike with a motor in it to test? Also, as Martin Slumbers pointed out last year, a driver’s CT generally increases as the head wears and can come to exceed the limit. Testing new heads from manufacturers would not solve this problem, either. Plain and simple, the only meaningful equipment tests are those conducted from players’ tournament bags.
This week’s R&A testing sheds light on the possibility of “mechanical doping” in golf. How aware of this possibility are the players? That’s unclear. Schauffele pointed out that other companies’ clubs failed testing. According to Golf Digest’s Joel Beall, however, several manufacturers confirmed that all their drivers passed. TaylorMade and obviously Callaway have said no such thing. (Coincidentally, Schauffele has played both brands; he switched from TaylorMade to Callaway in 2018.)
What all of this adds up to is a need for proper equipment testing, week in and week out, on the PGA Tour. This need becomes even clearer when you consider three factors: 1) a non-conforming club cannot be detected by the naked eye, 2) manufacturers intentionally ride close to the CT limit in the driver heads their staffers use, and 3) the more a driver has been hit, the more likely it is to be non-conforming. Even if a club is slightly illegal, that’s a problem. A barely too-hot driver head is like a tiny motor in a bicycle: the advantage may not be obvious in the moment, but it will manifest itself over time. Imagine being a pro golfer playing for millions of dollars and learning that your competitors have a technological edge before you even tee it up.
Conducting a CT test takes no more than a minute once a machine is set up and calibrated. Such a test could be conducted before a player tees off each round. If it doesn’t happen then, the player could simply switch out his tested driver for a hotter alternative.
To respond to this potential for mechanical doping, we should focus on a push for testing, not on a witch hunt for offenders. This push should be led by the players themselves, who, if they know they are using conforming equipment, will have an obvious interest in seeing the rules enforced. On the PGA Tour, every yard of driving distance, every point of CT is meaningful. A pro golfer’s job security relies on season-long results, and long-term driving stats are a crucial aspect of that performance. If equipment regulation never becomes prevalent, the manufacturers most willing to risk exceeding the limits will gain too much of an influence on the future of competitive golf, and on which players become storied champions and which don’t.
Until the governing bodies start testing equipment consistently and transparently, golf will be haunted by doubt, just like cycling. As Greg LeMond said of mechanical doping in cycling, “This is curable. This is fixable. I don’t trust it until they figure out how to take the motor out. I won’t trust any victories of the Tour de France.” He could have said the same about professional golf. Right now, it’s too easy to cheat, intentionally or not, and there’s too much money at stake not to test every week, every round.