Carts would handicap pro golf

Last year almost couldn’t have been better for the world of golf. A new surge in the popularity of the sport delivered record-setting attendance numbers at tournaments as legions of fans showed up to cheer for a new, younger generation of professional golfers. These fans took their passion away from the professional arena and onto the public links, playing more golf in greater numbers than ever before. The PGA could not help but be happy with the way things were going until a splash of cold water brought them back down to earth in December.
Every December the PGA holds the final round of the Tour Qualifying School. The top 35 competitors receive their tour cards, advancing to the PGA Tour, while the remainder of the field receives permission to play on the Nike Tour, the minor leagues of professional golf. This year a 25-year-old named Casey Martin entered the tournament and advanced to the finals, where the trouble began.
Martin, a former teammate of Tiger Woods on the NCAA championship Stanford Team, suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a rare circulatory birth defect. Spending extended periods of time on his feet causes blood to pool in his right leg, resulting in swelling and extreme discomfort, perhaps someday leading to the need for an amputation above the knee.
Walking with a noticeable limp, Martin petitioned the PGA to allow him to use a cart for the tournament. However the PGA has always maintained a policy prohibiting carts in professional tournament play. Since he believed that he would be unable to walk the golf course during the tournament, Martin feared that his dreams of becoming a professional golfer, something at least his golf swing seems to qualify him for, would come to an end. Therefore he took the matter to court.
Suing under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, Martin sought a court order forcing the PGA to allow him to use a cart. The law requires that “reasonable accommodations” be made for handicapped individuals so they may compete on an equal level with non-handicapped persons.
The court issued a preliminary injunction against the PGA, and Martin was allowed to take a cart. Since an advantage was perceived in cart riding, all competitors in the tournament were given the option of riding. Twenty of the 168 chose to do so on the first day. When Martin failed to earn his tour card by two strokes, a further agreement was reached between lawyers for both parties, allowing Martin to use a cart during the first two Nike events of 1998. He won the first, the Nike Lakeland Classic, and did not make the cut in the second.
A final decision will be made in the case during a trial beginning Feb. 2 in the federal court of Eugene, Ore., Martin’s hometown.
It is difficult not to sympathize with Martin’s predicament. He represents the highest character of the physically challenged, striving to overcome his handicap and fighting against the establishment for equal opportunities. Who is the PGA to stand in the way of his dream? Of course the court should rule in his favor. Or should it?
There are two very distinct issues on the table in this debate. Before we can even ask whether Martin should be allowed to ride, we must first ask whether the courts should be permitted to rule in his favor at all. Quite simply, issue one is whether a federal court has the authority to dictate the rules of a professional sport and issue two is whether the PGA should allow Martin to take a cart.
Golf, like most sports, is full of odd and seemingly arbitrary rules. You can’t wear shorts in the PGA. You can only carry 14 clubs. You can’t ride a cart. If the court decides to change one of these, what is to prevent it from changing any of the others?
Nothing. The governing body of a sport, comprised of individuals who have devoted their lives to the game, should have the final say in what the rules are. The United States Golf Association, the Royal and Ancient of St. Andrews and the PGA together establish the rules governing play. If the courts alter the rules, a Pandora’s box will be opened.
Congress will be able to legislate a constitutional amendment outlawing the designated hitter in baseball. An executive order from the president could force official instant replay review in the NFL. The rules would no longer exist to give structure and provide an even playing field in sports, but to satisfy public sympathies and political pressures.
The more difficult issue is whether the governing body of golf should alter its rules allowing Martin to ride a cart rather than walk to the 72 holes of a PGA tournament. The golfing public, according to most polls, is about evenly split on the matter. The foremost point of contention is whether walking is, as PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem has argued, “an integral part of the competition.”
At the amateur level, walkers are a dying breed. Fewer and fewer courses offer caddies to their customers, and many new courses require that a cart be taken. A decision by the PGA to allow carts would encourage even more people to use them, moving away from over 500 years of tradition. But tradition isn’t everything, and this argument offered by golf “purists” is far from convincing. Besides, we aren’t talking about amateurs here, but professionals.
The real problem is that Martin will receive an unfair advantage by being allowed to take a cart. While walking 18 holes a day (roughly 4.5 miles) over four days may not sound particularly taxing, the pressure of tournament play changes the “good walk spoiled” into a physical and mental challenge. In the final holes of a tournament, it is common to see fatigue setting in on the leaders. When a tournament is hosted on a hot, humid, Midwest weekend, the necessity for fortitude increases. Having ridden in a cart for four days, Martin would be much fresher down the stretch.
To nullify this problem, the PGA might offer carts to all players, as it did at Q-School. This, however, would be a terrible solution. Aside from the logistical problems of having so many carts attempting to weave through crowds of fans, if professionals start riding carts, it detracts from the legitimacy of championship golf as a competition among the best.
We fans watch golf to see the best in the world competing at a championship level. The highest level involves more than just shot making. It requires a degree of physical stamina above the average golfer. Remove this challenge and golf’s elite will be diluted. As in any spectator sport, the fans want to be entertained by the best, those like whom we aspire to be. There is no room for mediocrity at the top, and part of what separates the average from the best is going the distance on foot.
With my heart I wish Martin could take a cart on tour. That one with so much talent should be denied a dream is a tragedy. But with my mind I cannot support such a change to the rules of golf. Removing the requirement to walk takes away from the physical aspect of the sport, moving it closer to being only an event, a game, not a test of physical aptitude and strength.
The real triumph for Casey Martin would not be to change the rules of golf to accommodate himself, but to step forward and succeed despite his handicap. In the 1940s when Pete Gary, a one-armed outfielder, played for the St. Louis Browns (later the Baltimore Orioles), he excelled within the context of baseball. No special dispensation was made for him. He batted with one hand, fielded with one hand and showed us that he could compete among the best with one hand. I hope that Casey Martin goes out and does the same.

Chris Trejbal’s column appears every Tuesday. He welcomes comments at [email protected]