BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The timing, at best, is curious. The United States Golf Association, having opposed carts for disabled competitors, has extended a helping hand to the man who needs it least.
We refer here to the special three-year exemption granted Monday to Jack Nicklaus, who is both the greatest golfer in history and no longer much of a threat.
The USGA wants to prolong Nicklaus' participation in the four major championships and preserve a streak that has now stretched to 144 consecutive grand slam events. To that end, it offered Nicklaus a reserved spot in the next three U.S. Opens. It was a lovely gesture, designed to reward the Golden Bear's lifetime achievements and spare him the indignity of local qualifying.
''I can't imagine a more fitting way,'' said USGA President Buzz Taylor , ''to honor the greatest player of his generation and, arguably, the greatest player of all time.''
Fitting, yes. Fair, no.
If, as golf's governing boards have insisted throughout the Casey Martin affair, the playing field must be level for all competitors, special exemptions should be eliminated from America's most democratic tournament. If you don't treat everyone equally, you can't pretend you do.
More equal than others
The USGA risks hypocrisy here, and appears bent on the rare double bogey of callousness and favoritism. If its 16-member executive committee cannot see the contradiction in opposing Martin while opening doors for Nicklaus, imagine their difficulty in reading putts. Imagine Nicklaus, the advocate for tradition and fair play, having to invoke the loopy logic of Orwell's Animal Farm: ''All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.''
Much as it pains me to admit it, I'm in the no-cart camp. If golf is a sport (and there are those who still see this as an open question), then conditioning and fatigue are central to the competition. If the rules are bent for Casey Martin, however heart-rending his case, then the rules cease to exist.
That said, if we're going to be sticklers about carts for the crippled, we shouldn't be offering anyone else a free ride. Not in the Open, anyway. America's national championship should be available to anyone - club pros as well as touring pros; longshots as well as legends - and it ought to be earned. Because the field is limited to 156 players, each special exemption deprives some other player an opportunity to qualify.
Maybe Jack Nicklaus merits special consideration. Maybe a man who has won 18 majors should be cut some slack and afforded some shortcuts. The Masters and the PGA Championship provide lifetime exemptions to former champions. The British Open holds a place for its winners until they turn 65 years old.
But largesse should have its limits. When Nicklaus won his last Open, in 1980, he earned a 10-year exemption. His 1986 Masters victory won him another 5-year pass. Since that Masters exemption expired, though, Nicklaus has been a serious player only on the Senior Tour.
Not the same Jack
The special exemption he will get for this summer's Open at San Francisco's Olympic Club will be his sixth. If he tees up for the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach, he will be 60 years old. His last top 20 finish at the Open was at age 46.
''I don't expect to play how I used to,'' Nicklaus said last month. ''But I can still play at a level good enough to win, and really think that or else I wouldn't play at all.
''Do I think I can win very often? No. Do I think I can find lightning in the bottle every once in awhile? Yes, I think I can.''
Today, even as Tiger Woods dominates the scene, nothing energizes a tournament like Nicklaus' name on the leader board. To see him stride toward the green with a half-smile and an imperial wave is to glimpse greatness. So long as he's in sight, your eyes are on him.
You want him to compete as long as he can, but you also want to believe he belongs.