Dustin Johnson Highlights the PGA Tour's Need to Change Its Culture of Secrecy

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistAugust 2, 2014

Dustin Johnson of the US plays his shot from the 4th tee during the final round of the British Open Golf championship at the Royal Liverpool golf club, Hoylake, England, Sunday July 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
Scott Heppell/Associated Press

For years now, the PGA Tour has pursued just about every strategy imaginable to manufacture drama on the golf course.

If PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem felt that donating his left foot to science would somehow focus the bright lights of the media onto the tour and improve its dismal television ratings, let’s just say that Finchem would more than likely be limping around Ponte Vedra Beach with the help of a cane right now.

However, while the tour has been attempting every ploy under the sun to focus fans’ attention on the golf course, it has at the same time waged a murky shadow war to sweep any form of off-the-course drama quietly under the rug.  

Under the PGA Tour’s drug testing policy, it has the option to make public any suspensions handed down to players who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs, but it is not required to publicly announce any action taken against players who test positive for recreational drugs.

This attempt by the tour to essentially hide any disciplinary action taken as a result of activity that may be deemed detrimental to its squeaky-clean brand image has created quite a conundrum for players, sponsors and even PGA Tour executives.

Players that have the unfortunate luck of going down with an injury are frequently questioned by the media about whether they were indeed injured or were suspended by the PGA Tour. Players who are not directly questioned about the matter often still have to deal with the inevitable whispers and rumors that circulate about whether any form of disciplinary action was taken against them by the tour.

These uncomfortable situations caused almost exclusively by the PGA Tour’s iron gates of secrecy also place the tour's own communications executives in very difficult situations.

Tour executives are questioned about possible suspensions each time a player withdraws from an event or misses a series of events due to an injury. As it has been the policy of the PGA Tour to neither confirm nor deny suspensions for reasons other than the use of performance-enhancing drugs, these unfortunate communications executives must continually say “no comment” while looking like a herd of deer staring down the headlights of an 18-wheeler.

This week’s situation with Dustin Johnson is a perfect example of why the PGA Tour needs to pursue a strategy of pure transparency when it comes to all disciplinary action.

Johnson withdrew from this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Championship on Monday.

On Thursday afternoon, Johnson released the following statement, as reported by PGATour.com:

I am taking a leave of absence from professional golf, effective immediately. I will use this time to seek professional help for personal challenges I have faced. By committing the time and resources necessary to improve my mental health, physical well-being and emotional foundation, I am confident that I will be better equipped to fulfill my potential and become a consistent champion. I respectfully ask my fans, well-wishers and the media for privacy as I embark upon this mission of self-improvement.

This incredibly vague statement sent the golf world abuzz with rumors and speculation ranging from a breakup with fiancee Paulina Gretzky, to alcohol addiction, to depression or some other form of mental illness, to the possibility that some form of disciplinary action had been taken by the PGA Tour.  

Shortly after Johnson released his statement on Thursday, the PGA Tour released a statement saying, "We have nothing to add to Dustin's statement, but we wish him well and look forward to his return to the PGA TOUR in the future."

Needless to say, the rumor mill began spinning in overdrive after the PGA Tour decided to release its own nebulous statement on the matter.

By Friday afternoon, the rumors and speculation were narrowed down to a published report by two very well-respected golf journalists.  

Golf.com writers Michael Bamberger and Mike Walker published an article alleging that Johnson had been suspended for six months by the PGA Tour after testing positive for cocaine.

Citing an unnamed source, Bamberger and Walker went on to say,

Johnson has failed three drug tests: one for marijuana in 2009 and two for cocaine, in 2012 and 2014. He was previously suspended for the 2012 failed test, but that suspension was never made public. Under the PGA Tour’s drug-testing policies, the Tour is not required to announce any disciplinary actions against players who test positive for recreational drugs.

Had this article appeared on some obscure blog, it might have added a minor spark to this media firestorm that had already been burning profusely, but it would have essentially been just another rumor tossed into the flames.   

But this was certainly no rumor posted on some obscure golf blog written by some college student sitting at his computer in Calgary while drinking a bottle of Mountain Dew in his boxer shorts.

Golf.com is one of the most reputable golf websites in the world, and Bamberger and Walker are both very well-respected golf journalists.

So, it wasn’t long before the Golf Channel reported on the article during its Friday afternoon coverage of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and virtually every mainstream news website around the country had some form of front-page article citing Bamberger and Walker’s report on Johnson being suspended by the tour for cocaine use.

But this mystery would take yet another unexpected turn on Friday afternoon.

Just hours after Golf.com's report on Johnson being suspended by the tour for testing positive for cocaine came out, the PGA Tour took the unprecedented step of making a formal statement on a matter having to do with disciplinary action unrelated to the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

"With regard to media reports that Dustin Johnson has been suspended by the PGA TOUR, this is to clarify that Mr. Johnson has taken a voluntary leave of absence and is not under a suspension from the PGA TOUR," the tour said in an official statement released Friday afternoon.

So, we now either have a situation where Bamberger and Walker were dead wrong in their report, which appeared on the front page of virtually every news website around the country, or the PGA Tour has gone one step further than complete silence in blatantly lying to the public in order to protect its image.

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

At this point, no one quite knows what to believe with regard to Johnson’s indefinite leave from professional golf. He is either an innocent bystander who has been wrongly accused of using cocaine, or his personal substance-abuse issues have been uncovered by a couple of strong journalists.  

Either way, Johnson has suffered a significant amount of damage to his image over the past two days, which could, of course, translate damaging his future potential earnings.

This entire situation, and many similar situations in the past, could have been completely avoided if the tour was transparent with its disciplinary action and not so utterly obsessed with protecting its image in the eyes of the fans, sponsors and media.

While one certainly cannot fault any professional sporting organization for not wanting to draw undue attention to incidents that might be damaging to its brand, the PGA Tour’s level of secrecy regarding disciplinary action has not only been a train wreck waiting to happen, but it has also set a terrible example for young golfers.

Whether we are talking about a politician, athlete, celebrity or professional sporting league, secrecy has never wound up being a successful strategy.  

No matter how large of a closet a public figure or organization may own, or how tightly they believe that closet door is bolted shut, the skeletons will inevitably emerge at some point.

And when the skeletons do emerge, a funny thing tends to happen. All of that effort taken to keep those skeletons locked away in the closet winds up creating a considerably larger public relations nightmare than if an organization had just let those skeletons walk freely right from the start.

The PGA Tour’s desire to maintain a squeaky-clean brand image at all costs now has it appearing to the public as an organization that is more concerned with image, money and sponsors than doing the right thing.

Instead of showing young golfers that the largest professional golf organization in the world will not stand for things such as cursing on the course and poor sportsmanship, the tour has sent a message to young golfers that if they violate the rules in any way, it will just be swept under the rug.

Golfers will be able to claim some form of an injury and take a short vacation from the game without anyone knowing that they had violated any rules and without their image or the tour’s image being scratched in any way.

This whole Dustin Johnson incident is just another reason why it is time for the PGA Tour to increase its level of transparency and set a good example for all of those young, up-and-coming golfers who have aspirations of one day playing professional golf.

While brand image, money and sponsors are vitally important to the success of every professional sporting organization, attempting to hide actions that may be in any way detrimental to the brand has never been a smart path to travel.

Virtually every other professional sporting league in America makes all fines and suspensions known to the public; and one could certainly surmise that the PGA Tour is now scrambling to assess how it can adjust its own policies in a manner that would allow it to avoid these embarrassing situations in the future.

Let’s just hope that the tour finally does the right thing with regard to what disciplinary action it will take against its members.