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Tiger Woods' ties to doctor accused of peddling illegal drugs could tarnish his golf legacy

He has been a headline on the front page of the New York Post for 17 consecutive days.

He has become a punch line for monologues, a bull's-eye for the paparazzi and a potential ATM for every recipient of one of his text messages. He has lost endorsements, respect and, quite possibly, his marriage.

And now his luck has turned bad.

Tiger Woods woke up one morning this week to discover his career may be in danger of following his reputation in free fall. A doctor Woods has used in rehab is under FBI investigation, suspected of supplying athletes with performance-enhancing drugs, according to a New York Times report.

All these revelations later, this is the bombshell that could lay waste to Woods' legacy.

The stories of infidelity may be fascinating, but ultimately they are a private matter between a husband and a wife. Tiger cheated on Elin, and it had nothing to do with the rest of us.

The suggestion of performance-enhancing drugs is a completely different story. Woods is a celebrity because of what he has accomplished on the golf course, and now there may be reason to wonder if he cheated there, too.

Of course, it is important to point out that Woods has not been accused of anything illegal. His agent issued a statement that said the treatment Woods received from Dr. Anthony Galea after his 2008 knee surgery is widely accepted.

And in normal circumstances, maybe that would be enough. But Tiger's world has changed in the previous three weeks, and few people seem disposed to offer him the benefit of their doubts. And at this point, it's hard to blame them.

Unfortunately, sports fans have been forced to become among the most skeptical people on the planet. Once we believed in Alex Rodriguez. We believed in Marion Jones. In Shawne Merriman and in Ben Johnson. We believed until we looked foolish.

Does that mean it is fair to be suspicious of Tiger? Probably not. The evidence at this point is mostly circumstantial. What we know is that Dr. Galea has treated a lot of high-profile athletes (including former Buccaneer Chris Simms and former Lightning Gary Roberts), and he is a vocal proponent of human growth hormone, or HGH.

We know his assistant was stopped by U.S. border authorities while trying to illegally sneak HGH and other mislabeled drugs into the United States from Canada. We know Galea is scheduled to appear in court in Toronto on Friday to face charges of smuggling and selling unapproved drugs.

Finally, we know Galea went to Woods' home near Orlando several times this year. Galea told the New York Times he performed a procedure known as platelet rich plasma therapy for surgical rehabilitation. It involves drawing blood from a patient, spinning it to increase the platelet count and injecting it back into the patient at the point of the surgical procedure.

At this moment, nothing ties Woods directly to performance-enhancing drugs.

Except for the knot in our guts that suggests we've been here before.

Victor Conte was once a nutritionist sought by high-profile athletes such as Jones and Barry Bonds to help with their training. It seemed innocent enough until it exploded into the BALCO scandal.

And Mark McGwire was just a nice guy who grew mountain-sized before breaking one of the most revered records in baseball. And Roger Clemens was said to be in the twilight of his pitching career at 34 before bulking up and dominating hitters for another 10 years.

And now we have Tiger Woods, who is built like a linebacker and plays golf like no one else in the world.

You can be certain Woods, 33, did not achieve greatness due to steroids, but can you be absolutely sure he has not maintained his power and physique without artificial aid? Because that's where this story has left us.

We have just learned there is reason to doubt Woods as a role model and a husband. Now we have to consider whether there is reason to doubt him as a competitor, too. And in the long run, that may be more costly to him than anything else.

On the day he was named the athlete of the decade by the Associated Press, Woods was nowhere to be found Wednesday. No smiling photo. No gracious sound bite. Just a sarcastic New York Post headline waiting to be written.

I'll say it again: It's not really fair. Not without more evidence. Not even without a solid reason to accuse. But nor is it fair to expect sports fans to continue to look the other way.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tiger Woods' ties to doctor accused of peddling illegal drugs could tarnish his golf legacy 12/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2009 12:21am]

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