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If You Think 2000 Was Exciting...

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Casey Martin
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The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the PGA Tour's appeal of the Casey Martin case on Jan. 17. (.)

The same golf analysts who proclaimed the year 2000 to be the most spectacular ever for golf already are rubbing their hands in giddy anticipation of an even more eventful year in 2001. They're not predicting that Tiger Woods will walk over the water hazards, but based on past performances, even that might not be ruled out.

Considering his domination of the game last year, his near sweep of the major championships, and his wanton destruction of sacred courses like St. Andrews and Pebble Beach along the way, it would be totally unreasonable to expect a repetition. But even if Tiger tails off to, say, only six tour wins and about $6 million in prize checks, some forecasters are expecting this first year of the new millennium to be one of golf's most memorable.

For one thing, the United States Supreme Court is warming up to hear the PGA Tour's appeal of the Casey Martin case on January 17, and the outcome could have an enormous impact on the game. In vigorous pursuit through the lower courts, Martin has won the right to use a cart in competition because he has a disability that makes it difficult for him to walk during play. He bases his claim on the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and thus far the rulings have been mostly in his favor.

Martin is a good player. He earned his card for the Nike Tour at Q-School in 1997, and went on to win that tour's Lakeland classic the following year. He finished 14th on the Nike Tour's money list and won playing privileges on the PGA Tour for the 2000 campaign. Using his cart in 29 starts, he earned $143,000 and was 179th on the money list - not enough to remain on the big tour.

The PGA Tour has been adamant in its stance, claiming that walking the course is fundamental to the game, and that Martin's use of a car in PGA tournaments gave him an unfair advantage over the other competitors. Hearing an appeal in the Ninth Circuit, one judge's decision stated that walking is not an essential part of the game. Hitting the ball was the basis of the game. That court ruled unanimously in favor of Martin on that PGA Tour appeal.

The U.S. Golf Association has supported the PGA Tour in its efforts, although it did bow to the court decision and permit Martin to use a cart in the qualifying competition for the 1998 U.S. Open. He qualified and eventually finished tied for 23rd in the event at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Since then, the USGA has been sued by two other pros seeking to use a cart in the U.S. Open.

One court, ruling in favor of riding, pointed out that there was nothing in the Rules of Golf prohibiting the use of a cart. Another court, in rejecting the riding request, said that the use of a cart would alter the "nature of the competition," and that the game's governing bodies have the right to establish their own rules for their championships. The court upheld the USGA.

And with this disagreement in the lower courts, the Supreme Court has been asked to step in and settle the matter once and for all.

If the high court rules that sports bodies must waive their rules in order to accommodate players under the provisions of the ADA, chaos could result. What type of disability would qualify for the use of wheels would be the key question. And that could trigger still another long debate.

There is some concern about the high court's ability to evaluate the "fatigue factor" in golf. Only three of the nine Supreme Court justices play the game, both of the two women, incidentally, and it would seem that only a golfer could accurately measure the walking fundamental. Ask any golfer standing on the 15th tee with four holes to play, mostly uphill, and he'll provide expert opinion on golf and stamina.

Nevertheless, when the high court hands down its decision, very likely in mid-summer, that will be it. The game will have to live with it. And it is likely that the decision, if favorable to Martin and the others, will open the door to athletes in other sports who have been anxiously awaiting the verdict. Perhaps boxers with weak chins since birth will seek permission to wear protective headgear during a championship fight.

Of course, another court showdown in 2001 could hit the broadest base of the game. This would come if and when one or more of the golf equipment makers decide to take the USGA to the legal mat to determine what are and what are not "conforming" golf clubs and balls. It has been smoldering for some time, and there are many who suspect a decisive move is imminent.

It started when the USGA discovered that the use of new technology in making golf clubs was producing some problems. A spring-like or trampoline effect on some thin-faced drivers was producing added distance off the tee and made them "nonconforming." When the USGA banned this type of driver because it exceeded the limitation of ball velocity off the face of a driver, the club-makers fumed. They could see a huge potential profit crashing to the ground.

But then they got an unexpected break. After months and months of silence on the issue, the Royal & Ancient Club of St. Andrews indicated that it was in disagreement with the USGA's test for the thin-faced driver. It said it wouldn't follow the USGA's ban on the new driver. And since the USGA and the R&A jointly rule the golf world, the equipment people were overjoyed with the crack in the alliance.

A second stunning development was the incredible endorsement of the Callaway ERC II driver by Arnold Palmer. He explained he was giving it his blessing because it would bring more enjoyment to the recreational golfer. However, since Palmer had sold his troubled golf equipment company to Callaway and had agreed to endorse the new Callaway Rule 35 ball, skeptics didn't swallow it. And since Arnie had been a USGA spokesman for more than two decades, urging golfers to support the association and preserve the game as it was intended to be played, it was especially baffling.

With these two developments, many now think the club-makers have moved into a stronger position. This could be the time for the test, and there are reports that Callaway has taken on a high-priced legal team to draw up the battle plan.

In the meantime, Callaway has decided to market its driver in the U.S., as have several other producers of banned drivers. The USGA has no enforcement body to see that its rules are not violated. No one can be arrested for using an ERC II. It must depend on sportsmanship, good will and respect. Thus far, it's holding up. Every poll taken on the issue indicates that 70 percent or more of golfers will not use a nonconforming club. And two-thirds of the club pros indicate they will not sell them unless they are ordered to do so by their superiors.

What will happen if this issue goes to the courts? Will this loyalty stand firm? Will Arnie still be at the head of his "army?" Perhaps the answer will come in 2001.

And what about Tiger Woods? Well, we know he'll have a "new look" this year. No, not a new driver. Not a new putting stroke. This year, Tiger will be a blond. That's right, a blond. And he's already being tabbed, "The Blond Bomber."

An interesting year seems to be ahead.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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