Let This Golfer Overcome His Handicap

IT DOESN'T often happen that the Rules of Golf encounter the rule of law - and lose - but Casey Martin shocked the golfing world last week when he beat a royal and ancient rap, gaining millions of fans and the chance at a big-time golf career if he proves himself on the Nike Tour. Gracious, likable, shy - a reluctant litigator up to the moment of his triumphant vindication, Martin at times seemed almost apologetic about trying to lawyer his way into pro golf.

Only the very fiercest opponents of U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin's decision approving Martin's use of a golf cart on the tour could fail to be pleased for this golfer. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the aggressive pursuit of rights of access for every single member of society. Privileges and opportunities should be interchangeable with rights - it's that simple - and if it takes tinkering with business or governing bodies to allow everyone to pursue his or her ambitions to the utmost, so be it.

But should entitlement mean changing the rules for everyone? It's possible, maybe inevitable, that the magistrate's ruling - based on a blood-circulation problem that afflicts Martin's legs - will have other pros boarding buggies.

It isn't exactly tragic that the war against golf carts had to be waged through this particular case, but it's a damn shame. To any golfer who sympathized with the PGA Tour's arguments, this is what the Tour's case was about, as much as the contention that walking during competition is taxing. To the golf purist, carts are abominable. But they've almost become the rule in the United States (in Europe, only seniors may ride).

It's been pointed out that the PGA Tour is hardly blameless. Not only are senior players permitted to ride, but if you or I want to play a PGA Tour-owned course it's ride or else. And maybe the weakest part of the Tour's case is that as long as technological improvements in clubs and balls can help players improve their game, why not allow a simple golf cart? Error-correcting equipment, over-manicured golf courses, and the liberal application of certain local rules (such as lift, clean and place rule under wet conditions) have already changed the face of golf. And, by bowing to the technological advances of big-time equipment manufacturers and the demands of pampered pros, golf's governing bodies have been forced, inevitably, to cede their claims to independence.

Is the Tour being held accountable due to its success? Maybe. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Nor with the prospect of millions of his new fans getting to see this talented player play.

Only a jaundiced observer would cluck that, if doctors are cautioning him that even getting in and out of a cart is dangerous, Martin should perhaps be protected from himself.

So what makes so many fair-minded golfers uncomfortable about the judge's decision? It only seems common sense to ask, "If it were not physically demanding to walk the golf course, and Casey can't do it - end of story?"

Much depends on whether Martin fails or succeeds. If he does poorly riding, the public will forget about its reluctant hero - until another Tour member with a bad back or sore feet tries to hitch a ride. But, if he wins again and does well enough to advance to the PGA Tour itself, he may erase whatever good will and support he's found on the Tour as the other players decide whether to make it OK for everyone to hop on - which would be a travesty. If this happens, then what will become clear is that Magistrate Coffin, perhaps without meaning it, will have singled out Casey Martin for an exemption not in spite of his disability but because of it.

It isn't likely that the authors of the Americans with Disabilities Act meant that everyone, disabled or not, ought to use a wheelchair. But in making his ruling, Coffin may in effect have mandated something like this.


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