When cart goes before court, Martin to be an uneasy rider

January 14, 1998|By John Eisenberg

If you think your 1998 is off to a rough start, cheer up -- someone else has it tougher.

No, we're not talking about Marty Schottenheimer.

We're talking about PGA commissioner Tim Finchem, who has started the new year in a brutal, lose-lose situation over, of all things, a golf cart.

We'll get to the details, but first, so you understand the severity of Finchem's dilemma, here are his options: Put the screws to a disabled guy (always a popular move) or ruin golf's level playing field.

Nice choice, huh?

The situation has arisen from the dreams of Casey Martin, a golfer who played with Tiger Woods at Stanford and now is trying to make it as a pro. He has Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a congenital circulatory disorder that causes severe swelling in his right leg and foot and makes it all but impossible for him to walk 18 holes.

Martin, 25, wants to ride in a cart from shot to shot, as he did in college, but the PGA has strict rules about not doing that.

Golfers on the Senior Tour can use carts (not all do), but those on the regular tour and the minor-league Nike Tour "shall not use automotive transportation," according to the PGA. (The PGA Tour does allow carts in the early rounds at qualifying school).

Martin went to court, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act, and won a temporary injunction in his hometown, Eugene, Ore. That enabled him to play last week in the Lakeland (Fla.) Classic, a Nike Tour event -- and he won, shooting 19-under par.

A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 2 to determine if he can begin using a cart all the time, putting Finchem in the unenviable position of trying to ruin a disabled golfer's career.

But what is he supposed to do?

Conditioning is an important part of golf or any sport. Some tournaments are decided by who wilts under the burden of walking five miles four days in a row, while trying to maintain his swing, poise and concentration.

If you get tired, that's your problem.

To let some golfers ride and others walk, for whatever reason, is the essence of a tilted playing field.

Anyone with a heart wants the disabled to make as many gains as possible, of course, but major pro sports -- where fair play is the first commandment -- just isn't the right place for that.

The NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball haven't made exceptions, nor has the tennis tour or International Olympic Committee.

You just can't run the bases in a wheelchair, guard receivers on a moped -- or play the Masters in a cart while everyone else walks.

With careers, lives and millions of dollars at stake, playing fields must be level.

It's a cold, ruthless reality, but disabled athletes can compete in the pros only if they can adhere to the same rules as everyone else, like one-handed pitcher Jim Abbott.

Otherwise, there are just too many fairness issues.

Injuries, for instance. If golf carts were allowed for, say, those who couldn't walk, what would keep a golfer from leading a tournament after three rounds, claiming an injury and playing the fourth round in a cart? How serious would an injury have to be to require a cart? There are just too many medical questions. The PGA is not an HMO.

Besides, when Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal had a serious foot ailment that almost ended his career last year, no one suggested he get to ride in a cart. Pro sports doesn't work that way. If you can't play, for whatever reason, well, sorry, but that's too bad.

If Olazabal couldn't play from a cart, how can Martin?

Having said all that, it's impossible not to root for Martin, a likable guy who is just doing what he can to overcome the bad hand he was dealt and make his dreams come true.

The galleries at the Lakeland Classic roared for him as he limped back and forth across the greens last weekend, chipping superbly and draining long putts. He signed autographs during his rounds.

"I can't say no to people," he said later.

His is an irresistible, Hollywood-style story, that of a classic underdog overcoming the odds.

The dude can play, too.

Surprisingly, he has some support among golf's elite, a famously cutthroat group.

"Originally, I didn't think he should be allowed to ride," Mark Calcavecchia told the New York Times last week. "But if he's good enough to win on the Nike Tour, I think he should be allowed to come out here [on the PGA Tour] and see what happens."

Calcavecchia probably would feel differently if Martin beat him in a playoff after 72 grueling holes. How fair is that?

That's the fatal flaw with Martin's case: As much as you want him to get his way, it's just not fair.

True, his advantage wouldn't be that great. Golf is different from other sports in that its athletes perform while stationary. Golfers do nothing on the run. They use their legs only for balance and leverage.

Golf is mostly decided in the mind, in the swing, in the putting stroke -- not in the walk from shot to shot.

If Finchem and the PGA relented and allowed rare exceptions to the no-riding rule, the golf world probably wouldn't change much. It's doubtful the PGA would be bombarded by golfers claiming disabilities, some more real than others. The same stars would continue to win.

But the PGA isn't going to relent because, well, it can't.

That's why Tim Finchem's 1998 is off to a terrible start, but, in the end, Casey Martin's probably will be worse.

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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