The PGA Tour's Disgraceful Handling of the Dustin Johnson Situation

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistAugust 3, 2014

Dustin Johnson watches his tee shot on the 18th hole during the first round of the PGA Colonial golf tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, May 22, 2014.   (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero/Associated Press

It has now been three days since Dustin Johnson released a statement saying he would be taking an indefinite leave from the game of golf to deal with “personal challenges,” and much of the golf world is still utterly confused by exactly what has transpired.  

Before we delve into the PGA Tour’s incredibly poor handling of this entire situation, let’s just recap what has happened thus far.  

Johnson withdrew from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on Monday, and three days later, he released the following statement:

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.

A short time after Johnson released that vague statement, the PGA Tour released a statement of its own, which said, "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."

The rumor mill begin rapidly spinning, and less than 24 hours after Johnson’s initial statement, respected writers Michael Bamberger and Mike Walker published an article alleging that Johnson had been suspended for six months by the PGA Tour for testing positive for cocaine.

Citing an unnamed source, Bamberger and Walker said, "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."

According to writer Bob Harig, the PGA Tour was approached about these allegations shortly after the story broke, and PGA Tour Vice President Ty Votaw told ESPN that "the Tour does not comment on rumors and speculation."

Several hours later, the PGA Tour did an about-face and released a formal statement that said, "Mr. Johnson has taken a voluntary leave of absence and is not under a suspension from the PGA Tour."

Bamberger and Walker then updated their article:

After declining a Friday morning request to comment on the Johnson drug test results and his punishment, the PGA Tour released the following statement on Friday afternoon: “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 difference may be seen as semantic. Faced with a suspension for a failed drug test, a Tour player has the right, under published Tour guidelines, to appeal his penalty. The Tour was preparing for Johnson to lodge such an appeal. But Johnson waived that right and decided to take his self-described "leave of absence."

The Tour’s one-sentence statement did not address Johnson’s drug test results or say whether Johnson's 11-week absence in 2012 was also a "voluntary leave of absence." In that period, when Johnson said he was not playing Tour events (including the Masters) because of bad back, he was seen hitting balls regularly in South Florida, where he lives. The Tour's policy of releasing no information on failed drug tests or resulting penalties essentially allows a player and his advisors to characterize an absence as they wish.

The PGA Tour has not commented on the matter since it released its statement Friday afternoon saying Johnson had taken a voluntary leave of absence and was not suspended by the tour.

One way or another, the PGA Tour’s handling of this entire situation has been nothing short of disgraceful.

If Johnson did not test positive for cocaine use and was not suspended by the PGA Tour, the tour has just thrown one of its brightest young stars out to the wolves with no form of protection whatsoever.

If Johnson did test positive and was either formally suspended or forcefully told to take a “leave of absence” by the PGA Tour, the tour has just engaged in a game of semantics bordering on outright lying in an attempt to protect its brand image.

Fines, suspensions and other disciplinary actions taken against players are publicly announced by virtually every other professional sporting league in America.

People may not always agree with the disciplinary actions taken by these leagues, but the policy creates a culture of transparency. It also sets a good example for kids, teaching them that if they break the rules in any way, they will be punished.

The PGA Tour has pursued a policy very different from leagues such as the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.

Brand image trumps all else at the PGA Tour, and several years ago, it made the decision to quietly sweep all damaging behavior under the rug.

The tour’s policy with regard to disciplinary action is that it only publicly announces actions taken against players who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Disciplinary action taken against all other behavior that could be deemed as unbecoming to the tour is not made public.

This allows suspended players to explain their absences in any way they would like, and injury is the most popular explanation.

It is the culture of secrecy and the obsession with brand image that now has the PGA Tour’s integrity being called into question over Johnson’s "leave of absence."

And the tour has no one to blame but itself.