Wednesday, January 14, 1997
PGA can't put cart before sport

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Casey Martin is a scratch golfer with a high handicap. The handicap is that he doesn't walk so well.

Because a degenerative muscle disease inhibits the blood flow to his right leg, Martin is compelled to use a cart between shots. It wouldn't make for much of an issue, except Casey Martin does not need as many shots as most golfers.

He is good enough to compete on the Nike Tour, and won the Lakeland Classic on that satellite circuit last week after obtaining a temporary injunction that granted him the right to ride. In the process, Martin created a thorny test case for the puritanical PGA.

Is the requirement that golfers walk the course an integral part of tournament competition? Or is it a cosmetic conceit that discriminates against the disabled? A hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 2 in the Federal Court of Oregon. Lawyers deposed Arnold Palmer on the matter Monday.

''I think part of the game, and the tradition and integrity of the game, is being able to walk and compete,'' Palmer told the Associated Press. ''If I'm too old to walk, which is getting close, then I will quit.''

Palmer is 68, and continues to reject the cart privileges permitted by the Senior PGA Tour. Yet not everyone is as spry as the commanding general of Arnie's Army, and nowhere is it written that everyone should be held to his standards.

Conditioning's crucial

One of the glories of golf is that it accommodates athletes of almost every age and physical description. It is The Game Of A Lifetime, or so says the propaganda. Aside from horse racing, golf is the only major sport in which handicaps are considered in the scoring.

Yet there is a big difference between squeezing in a brisk 18 holes on a Saturday morning and competing in a professional tournament on a Sunday afternoon. On a hot day, on a hilly course, a man's conditioning can be every bit as critical as his swing. That's the argument, anyway.

It should be pointed out here that what the PGA considers ''integral'' to its competition is sometimes relevant only to its image. When two caddies dared to show up in shorts during the oppressive heat of the 1996 PGA Championship, they were told to change into long pants or face removal from the grounds.

Carts, clearly, are not the picture professional golf wants to present. They erode the perception that the competitors are real athletes, and they run contrary to the basic premise of spectator sports, which is that it's more fun to watch someone else sweat than to do so yourself.

An informal study of the Senior PGA Tour last year revealed that only six of the top 50 players used carts on a regular basis. None of professional golf's other sanctioning bodies - the PGA, the Nike Tour, the LPGA and the United States Golf Association - permit players to use carts.

Since Martin's injunction, all of these organizations have released statements reiterating their positions and insisting on their right to enforce their own rules.

In the USGA's declaration, the overseers of the U.S. Open said, ''walking, physical fitness, and stamina are an essential part of the examination process in determining national champions in its competitions. Moreover, the USGA contends that it, as the national governing body of golf, should determine the parameters that govern its competitions, not the judicial system.''

Only fittest survive

The Supreme Court is historically reluctant to rewrite the rules of private entities, and it is unlikely this case would get that far. While Martin's disability makes him a figure of sympathy and a member of a protected class, the logic behind his claim is a little flimsy.

If Casey Martin can compete with a cart, must the National Football League permit injured players to take the field in their Porsches? Should Cecil Fielder be allowed to run the bases on a Harley?

Certainly not. For good or ill, professional sports is inherently about survival of the fittest.

''Life is that way,'' Arnold Palmer said. ''And it can't all be beautiful.''

More Casey Martin coverage from Associated Press
Sullivan archive