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Supreme Court's Gavel Opens a Can of Worms

By John M. Ross,
Casey Martin
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Casey Martin (.)

If anyone thinks the Supreme Court ruling is the final word on the Casey Martin case, he might be a good prospect for a sale of the Brooklyn Bridge.

For more than three years, Martin has been trying to convince the PGA Tour and the various courts that the Americans With Disabilities Act entitles him to use a golf cart in tournaments where they are specifically prohibited. With the PGA Tour and other purists adamant about preserving the rules of the game, a spirited debate among golfers has ensued and will likely continue even though the highest court in the land has made the end-all decision on the issue.

At my place, as well as in so many other grillrooms, the club's Debating Society was hitting new highs on the decibel meter.

"The courts have no business defying the rules of any sport," was the opening shot, and there was general nodding of heads and agreement.

"Especially golf, where it's, you know, so sacred," another jumped in. "It isn't that we learned as kids."

"That's right, and now we have this old judge telling us that walking doesn't mean much. It's just hitting the ball that counts."

"Nicklaus hit the nail on the head," said another. "He suggested that they take those justices out to the course and make them play 18 holes without a cart, and see if walking is such a minor part of the game. They'd change their minds in a hurry, he said."

No one was bitter with Martin for opening this can of worms. Indeed, many were happy for him. He had fought a gutsy battle, and even though the Court had declared him a winner, it could turn out to be a hollow victory. His withered leg continues to deteriorate, and his dream of playing on the PGA Tour might only be short term at best if he gets there. He's been warned that amputation could be the only solution if his pain continues to worsen.

Considering his disability, a rare circulatory disorder, the 26-year-old Martin plays a remarkable game. But in recent years with all the hoopla and uncertainty over the litigation, his game has suffered. He lost his PGA Tour card last year for insufficient performance, and then failed by one stroke to make the cut at Qualifying School. His play hasn't improved on the Buy.Com Tour, and his chances of moving up to the big tour this year are not encouraging at this point.

Martin, however, is only optimistic. He feels the Court decision is going to give his game an important lift.

Most tour players had a bittersweet reaction to the High Court's verdict. Hal Sutton, a member of the PGA Tour's Policy Board, indicated he was happy for Martin, but he wondered if the Tour would now be overrun by the players with back problems, or other ailments, asking for a cart. He thinks the consequences could be enormous.

"We're in a gray area now," he noted. "Who is the governing body of the door the Court just opened?" Good question.

Does the ruling mean that the PGA Tour's everyone-walks rule has been torpedoed? Tour officials aren't interpreting it that way. For the moment, they say, it simply means that the decision is in response to Martin's suit against the PGA Tour for the right to use a golf cart because of his disability. The Court has ruled he can. For the present, it is a matter of wait and see for the Tour bosses.

Considering how long it took to reach a final decision on the Martin case, we could see wrangling over this for the next few decades or more. Initially, Martin sued the Tour in 1997, when it turned down his request to ride, based on the ADA's guidelines. A lower federal court ruled in Martin's favor, the PGA Tour appealed, and a judge's order directed the Tour to allow Martin to ride pending the appeal. That covered 3-1/2 years before the final verdict was handed down last week.

The PGA Tour indicates that its rule still stands, and anyone looking for an exception will have to follow Martin's path. Not all disabilities are identical, and not all are covered by the ADA's protective arm, it has pointed out.

Undoubtedly, there are hundreds of legal eagles exploring ways of making hay with the Martin decision for their clients or potential clients. And they are not necessarily all golfers. The right of protection from the ADA can be sought by all athletes under the Martin verdict. And I tuned in to some fanciful possibilities in that aforementioned session in the grillroom.

One barroom barrister pointed out that the term "disabled" is a broad umbrella that covers an incredible range of disorders. He suggested that a baseball pitcher, with an arm weakened by injury while trying to fulfill his playing contract, might now seek to have the distance between the mound and home plate shortened. Or a professional boxer who suffers from migraines might use the decision as a basis for getting permission to wear some kind of headgear for protection in a regular professional match.

Fanciful? You bet. But some of the other possibilities were even weirder.

Media response to the decision varied, often based on the outlet's political bent. Most pounded on the government for putting its nose into still another area where it didn't belong. And especially into a sport that has built an immaculate reputation over centuries for honesty and integrity, and a one-rule-fits-all policy.

Others applauded with glee, saying it was about time that the "elitist" and "heartless" sport was slapped down. The editorial cartoonists had a field day, too. The one with the most bite, I think, was in the New York Post. It showed the Supreme Court as a blind baseball umpire with a seeing-eye dog on a leash, taking his position behind home plate and crying out, "Play ball!"

Unquestionably, golf was strange territory for the Supreme Court, especially for this type of analysis. Washington reports indicate that only two of the nine jurists play the game regularly, and that could have been a factor in the 7-2 decision.

But The Court could be wrestling with a golf issue again if and when the golf equipment manufacturers decide to test the right of the U.S. Golf Association to ban the new high-tech clubs that violate the game's standards, or even the right to rule, period. And this one would have far greater impact than the Martin case. It could affect the very life and future of the game.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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