Sports

Disabled Golfer Should Have To Play By Same Rules

Sometime Wednesday, Casey Martin will step onto the first tee in Haines City, Fla., hit his drive in the first round of the PGA Tour qualifying school, then climb into a cart and ride away.

Most likely, later this month a federal magistrate in Oregon will hold a hearing to decide if an injunction allowing Martin use of a cart because of a leg disability should be extended to the PGA Tour and the Nike Tour.

A key point in that hearing - if not the central point - will be this question: Is the stamina needed to walk 4 or 5 miles part of the physical challenge required of a professional golfer?

Is walking, and the strain that can result, as much a part of the total package of a pro as rhythm, touch, power and the nerve to make a 4-foot putt with a championship on the line?

Based on the memory of Ben Hogan trodding the course on shattered legs after his car crash, on the image of a dazed Ken Venturi finishing the 1964 U.S. Open in 100-degree temperatures near heat stroke and the return of Jose Maria Olazabal from crippling foot problems, the answer is yes.

Walking is part of the essential nature of competitive golf.

While Martin should be allowed to pursue a career in golf - in fact, it should be ensured that every barrier that might obstruct his pursuit of a career in golf be removed - he is not entitled to the right to be a competitive golfer under a different set of rules.

He should no more be allowed to ride a cart during competition than someone with a problem with depth perception should be allowed to use a sighting device to help judge distances even though USGA rules prohibit use of any aid beyond one’s senses.

There are about 25 million golfers in the United States. More than 23,000 of those golfers are PGA of America professionals eligible to teach the game, sell equipment and run pro shops.

But only 291 players had PGA Tour cards in 1997. That is about one-thousandth of 1 percent of all American golfers and 1 percent of all professional golfers.

Does the issue that Martin raises demand a rethinking of outdated and overly purist attitudes about the game, or does it require such a radical change in competition so as to alter the basic nature of the sport?

The latter seems to be the case.

The Americans With Disabilities Act, under which Martin sued, covers disabled individuals discriminated against in employment, by state and local government or in public accommodations.

The court will first decide if Martin’s case fits one of those three categories. The court will also decide if Martin’s ailment is a disability that affects a major life function, entitling him to coverage under the act.

Martin, 25, played on Stanford University’s 1994 NCAA championship team and was runner-up in the second round of the PGA Tour qualifying tournament despite a progressively worsening muscle and bone condition in his right leg that causes him pain when he walks.

The PGA Tour allowed the use of carts in the first two rounds of qualifying to expedite play but bans them in the grueling 108-hole final stage of qualifying to simulate PGA Tour tournament conditions.

There is no question Martin is a good golfer and he likely possesses the shotmaking ability of a professional. But is he entitled to the aid of a cart to compensate for his physical disability?

Would the introduction of carts on the PGA Tour radically change the nature of the competition?

Yes.

The words written by Grantland Rice after Hogan lost an 18-hole playoff to Sam Snead in the 1950 L.A. Open less than a year after his car crash seem to fit here.

“His heart,” Rice said, “was simply not big enough to carry his legs any longer.”

Walking is part of the mix of championship golf.



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