If it were just about Casey Martin it would have been an easy matter. He’s a nice guy and a talented guy. Let him play. Let him ride a cart.
But the PGA Tour saw Martin’s lawsuit as a challenge to its right to rule the game and as a fundamental change in the way the game has always been played at its highest competitive level: by walking.
Yet in the battle of emotional images - Ben Hogan limping along and Ken Venturi stumbling along vs. the withered stick that serves as Martin’s right leg - it was never a contest.
The reality of a courageous young man in the present was far more compelling to the public than a couple of memories from the game’s past. This trial was a total public relations disaster for the PGA Tour.
Non-golfers, most of whom don’t see golf as an athletic event, were near unanimous in their support for Martin.
Even recreational golfers, many of whom ride carts regularly, were also mostly on Martin’s side.
The tour players, those guys who have experienced the fatigue over five hours on a hot day and over four consecutive days of competition, were reluctant to say much publicly, but the vast majority said privately that riding gave a player an advantage simply by reducing the fatigue factor.
Nearly everyone saw it as a matter of rich, powerful men trying to deny a disabled young man the right to earn a living and pursue his athletic dream.
Casey Martin can ride a cart in the Nike Tour event in Austin, Texas, the first week of March. U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin said so.
The question now is what happens next.
The PGA Tour will appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, who said privately he expected to lose in Oregon, may have to go beyond the notoriously liberal court in San Francisco if the tour is to win its appeal.
That could take years. It could, in fact, take longer than Martin’s leg will be able to stand competitive golf, even with a cart.
In the meantime, Martin will play on the Nike Tour, where he has already won once this year. If he wins two more times in 1998, Martin gets an immediate “battlefield promotion” to the PGA Tour.
If he finishes in the top 15 on the Nike Tour money list this year, he earns his playing card for next year.
Martin can also get into a PGA Tour event - right now - another way. A sponsor can invite him to play.
The sponsor of a PGA Tour event is allowed to invite up to eight players into the field. That’s how non-tour players like Colin Montgomerie, or Tiger Woods right after the 1996 U.S. Amateur, get into U.S. tour events.
There is nothing to stop the sponsor of next week’s Tucson Chrysler Classic from inviting Martin and his cart to the tournament. Martin can accept as many as seven sponsor exemptions a year.
Would a sponsor risk angering the PGA Tour and invite Martin? It wouldn’t be a surprise. Everyone is still in this to make money.
The ruling Wednesday only affects those events run by the PGA Tour, which includes the Nike Tour. The U.S. Open, the PGA Championship, the British Open and the Masters are conducted by different organizations.
One of the concerns all along by the PGA Tour was that a favorable ruling for Martin would open up an unenforceable can of worms.
What does this mean for other players with disabilities or those with injuries?
Can Fred Couples now ride because of his chronically sore back, or can Scott Verplank use a cart because of his diabetes?
It is highly unlikely that either player would try to use Martin’s victory as a precedent to allow them to ride, but someone else might.
There are about 25 million golfers in the United States. More than 23,000 of those golfers are PGA of America professionals.
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.
Without a cart, Martin could not be among that elite number. Even with a cart he was unable to finish in the top 35 at qualifying school in December and earn his tour card.
Perhaps Martin now faces the only challenge that matters: To prove on the golf course he belongs.
In the meantime, the appeals process will grind on.
And though the PGA Tour could very well win somewhere down the road, it will only be after its image is further damaged in the court of public opinion.
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