Spit It All Out, Tour Golfers: Few Speak of Tobacco Habit – New York Times

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — What crosses the lips of PGA Tour players, but makes them hold their tongues?

The clues are everywhere this week at the Wells Fargo Championship. You can spot them in the circular-shaped outline in some golfers’ back pants pockets; in their excessive spitting; in their frozen smirks.

Not far off Tobacco Road, these golfers are hiding a dirty secret in plain sight. They are smokeless tobacco users. And many, like Lucas Glover, the 2011 champion, are loath to admit it.

“I don’t really want to talk about it,” Glover said. “It sets kind of a bad example for the kids, and I’m not proud of what I do.”

How many other golfers use smokeless tobacco? A photographer who is a regular on the Tour was shown a list of players in this week’s field. He started pointing to names and then gave up. “It’d be easier to say who doesn’t use it,” he said.

One player described the use of smokeless tobacco, which is basically either chewing tobacco or snuff, as a form of male bonding, with friends passing around a tin on the range or putting green or tee.

“It’s more of a male camaraderie thing than anything else,” the player said.

He did not want to be identified because his father is a dentist, whose practice presumably includes patients with gum disease and discoloration of the teeth and tongue, all telltale signs of smokeless tobacco use.

Bruce W. Adkins, the director of the division of tobacco prevention of the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health in Charleston, W.Va., said research was incontrovertible: Friends should not let friends use smokeless tobacco.

“These guys are looking to improve any way they can,” Adkins said. “So they’ll say, ‘Let me see if it works for me’ and then they’re hooked.”

Smokeless tobacco became a taboo subject when evidence mounted that it caused an increased risk of developing oral, esophageal and pancreatic cancers. A half-dozen players and Tour officials admitted to using it and were willing to talk about it as long as their names were not used for reasons as varied as embarrassment and their wives’ lack of knowledge.

One player whose spouse and two children know about his habit and are none too pleased is Brian Gay. A four-time tour winner from Texas, Gay said, “My wife and daughters are on me all the time.”

Gay, 42, who played golf at Florida, was a regular user in college. “Unbelievably, I actually quit for six months after college,” he said.

So why did he go back to putting a pinch between his cheek and gum?

“I was still hanging out with guys who do,” Gay said, “and the next thing I know they’re asking me, ‘Hey, want a dip?’ ”

Gay said he also felt awful when he was not using.

Stanton Glantz, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco and the director of its Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, was not surprised. He likened the brain and nervous system of a person using smokeless tobacco to a stereo system with the volume turned up too loud. The nicotine acts like pillows over the speakers. When the person stops using smokeless tobacco, it is akin to taking the pillows away. The volume becomes unbearably loud.  

“It causes anxiety,” Glantz said, “and that helps explain why these guys are compulsive users.”

The nicotine in the smokeless tobacco elevates the heart rate and blood pressure. Gay does not dispute that. In fact, for those reasons he described it as “bad for you performance-wise.”

He added: “I had somebody put it in my head that you can’t be in the zone if you chew. I still do it, but I’m more aware I’m doing it. I do chew less than I used to. I probably chew more off the course than on it.”

On Thursday, during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship, Gay put a plug of tobacco in his mouth on the first hole and spit it out, discreetly, on the second. “And then I went nine holes without a plug,” he said. “So I went two hours without it. Off the course, that would never happen.”

Appearances matter on the tour, which markets its athletes as role models, which is why the players who do use tobacco products generally take pains to be discreet.

Gay said people in his gallery rarely seemed to notice his habit.

“Once in a blue moon someone will yell out, ‘Can I have a chew?’ ” he said.

Gay added: “If I know I’m on the television camera, I’ll be more conscious of doing it. And if I’m going along nicely, I might not use it.”

Adkins is skeptical about players’ ability to control their nicotine intake. “One of the things that we know from lots of research is smokeless tobacco products are high in nicotine,” he said. “If you keep on average a pinch in your mouth for 30 minutes, you’re getting an equivalent amount of nicotine to smoking four or five cigarettes.”

Adkins added: “That’s part of the addiction. Neurologically and physically they think this isn’t hurting me, this isn’t harming me.”

Notes

Ángel Cabrera, the first-round leader, followed his opening six-under-par 66 with a 69 Friday to maintain a share of the lead with Martin Flores (67-68). Rory McIlroy, the 2010 champion, barely made the cut at one over.

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