A judge ruled Wednesday that Casey Martin can ride a cart on the pro golf tour, a landmark victory in the first case invoking federal disabilities laws to compete in a major sport.
When U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin announced his ruling, Martin smiled slightly, nodded his head while looking at his parents, then turned to his lawyers and said, “We won.”
“I hope five to 10 years from now, if I’m still able to play golf, the PGA will lean back and scratch their heads and say, “Why did we fight this guy?”’ he said at a news conference, where he broke down in tears.
“I realized if I win, it would open the way,” he said. “That’s something to feel good about.”
Martin’s lawsuit sought to use the Americans With Disabilities Act to force the PGA Tour to accommodate his rare circulatory disorder that makes it painful and even dangerous to walk. His doctors say too much stress on his withered right leg could cause it to break, and may force amputation.
Coffin, who deliberated just three hours, faulted the tour for failing to consider Martin’s individual medical condition.
Instead, tour lawyers emphasized principles of competition, arguing a cart would give Martin an advantage and remove the fundamental of athleticism and stamina that walking gives the game at its highest levels.
The judge acknowledged that the walking-only rule was “substantive” but said the PGA Tour failed to prove that waiving the rule for Martin would fundamentally alter competition.
As for the argument that walking the course is a test of stamina, Coffin said walking 18 holes over a period of five hours is “not significantly taxing.”
“The fatigue level from his condition is easily greater than of an able-bodied person walking the same course,” Coffin said.
PGA Tour spokesman Bob Combs said the tour disagreed with the ruling and would appeal, but would obey the judge. “Now we have the obligation to furnish Casey Martin a golf cart, and we will.”
Martin plans to play in Austin, Texas, March 3 on the second-tier Nike tour. Riding a cart under a temporary injunction last month, the 25-year-old golfer won the tour’s Lakeland, Fla., event. He missed the cut in his next event.
“The public has spoken. The courts have spoken. You’d think they’d get it,” Martin said.
Martin’s case caused a national debate over the rights of the disabled to compete in professional sports.
Added Martin’s lawyer, Martha Walters: “It’s so important to so many people. The ruling sets a legal precedent as the ADA applies to sports. I would hope the PGA would see this doesn’t cause them a problem.”
Walters told the judge in her closing argument that Martin doesn’t want special treatment, just a chance to compete.
“Casey Martin would not be here if it meant he would be asking for anything - anything - like sympathy,” Walters said.
Pointing to Martin’s atrophied, leg, Walters said: “You cannot look at that leg and believe for one instant that Casey Martin would have a competitive advantage.”
In the PGA Tour’s summation, its lawyer warned Coffin against allowing the strong public sympathy for Martin to cloud his judgment.
“I know, your honor, there is a substantial amount of public sympathy for Mr. Martin,” lawyer William Maledon said. “I sympathize with Mr. Martin as well.
“That is not what this case is about,” he said. “The right thing to do would be to decide this case based on the applicable law, not in accordance with public opinion.”
Martin said afterward he hopes to live up to the public’s expectations of him now and doesn’t want to be treated as an outcast on the tour.
“I don’t view myself as a victim,” he said. “I’ve been too blessed in life to be a victim.”