The Library

PGA Should Drop Casey Martin Suit.
By Donald Johns

Now that Casey Martin has won in court, won on the minor-league Nike Tour, and played well in the U.S. Open, his success as a professional golfer may seem a pretty sure thing. After all, just to qualify for the Open he made a 25-foot putt on the second hole of a five-player playoff for the last of five spots in sectional qualifying. He did that at the end of a day in which he'd already completed 36 grueling holes. Riding or walking, that shows extraordinary talent, fortitude, and stamina.

But Martin still faces some formidable obstacles. Professional golf is a grind under the best circumstances, and it's not clear yet whether the degenerative condition in Martin's leg will allow him to persevere on the Tour even with the aid of a cart. The other obstacle is legal. True, a federal judge in Oregon gave Martin the right to ride in tournaments. But the PGA Tour has appealed the decision.

Why would Tour officials want to prolong a case that has been a public relations nightmare? Not for the sake of honor or on the offhand chance that they may get lucky. No, they believe Martin was the beneficiary of a hometown decision, and they think they can win the appeal. If they do win, they may well turn around and let Martin ride - but it will be on their terms. They know they have lost this battle for public opinion, but they want to win the war for control over the game.

Tour officials argue that by law and on principle an outside agency has no right to interfere with tournament golf. They also say it's a technical issue - walking is an integral part of the game, and stamina is a prequisite for success. Martin and his attorneys argue that federal law requires the Tour to provide equal access for the disabled. To outsiders, it just seems that if the guy can hit golf shots, he ought to be allowed to hit golf shots, regardless of how he gets from one to the next.

Let's take the technical issue first. Casual observers may scoff with Mark Twain that golf is just "a good walk spoiled." But anyone who confuses competitive golf with a stroll in the park should remember the last time they walked five or six miles over hill and dale, or the last time they did that four days in a row under crunching psychological pressure. Traditionalists like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tom Watson support the Tour's view that walking is an indispensable feature of competitive golf. For example, they point to Ken Venturi's storied victory in the Open at Congressional in 1964, when he staggered through his second eigthteen holes delirious from heat exhaustion.

Traditionalists make a valid point, but they overlook some things. For one, nobody plays thirty-six holes per day at the U.S. Open anymore. If they did, officials wouldn't allow a competitor to continue in Ken Venturi's condition, not at the risk of a law suit. Then there's the little inconsistency that carts are allowed on the Senior Tour. Most ironic is the fact that Palmer and Nicklaus have built numerous courses where golfers are required to ride carts, bestowing a dreadful scourge upon the game.

Traditionalists object that by conserving energy Martin gains an advantage when riding in a cart, and they seem to have a point. But Martin has answered that criticism well, claiming that he would prefer to walk. Riding, he says, disrupts his rhythm and hinders his intuitive feel for the course. He's right about that. Anyone who knows the game knows that cart golf is not the real thing. More to the point, the condition of Martin's leg is such that the walking he does do probably wears him out at least as much as walking the whole route does a healthy golfer. And once he arrives at his ball, he still has to hit it; he has to measure distance and wind, select the proper club, and make swing after swing under the wrenching pressure of tournament golf.

Beyond the walking issue, Tour officials argue that the courts have no right to fool with the rules of the game at all. Again, they seem to have a point. For example, one wouldn't expect to see courts ruling on the zone defense in basketball. But the Tour has some unfortunate history working against it here. This is the organization that until 1961 had a "Caucasians-only" clause. To the public, Martin's case probably seems more akin to the struggle of Charlie Sifford, the talented African-American golfer who fought the color line, than it does to disputes over the designated hitter and such.

It's the image of golf that's at stake here. The governors of the game like to project it as a kind of genteel, civilized refuge from a rough-and-tumble world. They see it as a sport of honor, where a contestant will penalize himself even when no one else has witnessed the infraction. It's not quite like that, of course. Sometimes top competitors accuse others of cheating. Like other athletes, players tend to be egocentric, and some journeymen resent the greats like Nicklaus, Norman, and Woods. Younger players on practice greens have been spotted mocking Tom Watson's nerve-wracked putting stroke. Some pros have assailed the Martin decision and treated him coldly at tournaments. Others, like Tom Lehman, Greg Norman, Payne Stewart and John Cook, have spoken out in his favor.

Golf has other problems to worry it, too. Courses are crowded and overpriced, chemicals run off into watersheds. Last year in Ireland, a golfer was diagnosed with "golf-ball liver," contracted from (why, I don't know) licking golfballs and holding tees in his mouth. The cause was weedkiller 2,4-D, known as Agent Orange.

Closer to home, I have a hard time explaining the appeal of the game to friends. Despite the success of Tiger Woods and Lee Trevino, among others, they see it as the province of the white and the affluent. Watching golf, says one friend, is just "watching Republicans take each other's money." That's the image the PGA Tour supports by fighting Casey Martin.

There's no easy solution to the Martin case. One could go round and round on it, like Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." Yes, the Tour is right about walking being an integral part of the game, right that golf is a multi-faceted physical and mental test. On the other hand, with his debilitating condition, Martin gains no tangible advantage by using a cart. His case is not strictly parallel to that of Charlie Sifford and other non-white pioneers because their ethnicity didn't prevent them from performing the physical tests the game requires. On the other hand, the issue cannot be reduced to a narrow technical question. In its complexity and lack of clear definition, the case echoes poet Donald Hall's lament: "day and night are so easily distinguishable; but everything human seems to flourish in twilight." Technically, maybe, Martin should be required to walk. But the PGA Tour needs to live with contradiction, to get comfortable with shades of grey. It needs to step out of history's way and let the guy compete.

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