Golf's awkward handicap

No respect: Disabled players' challenge recalls sport's sordid history, but is still off the mark.

January 22, 2001

GOLF IS THE Rodney Dangerfield of sport -- it gets no respect.

Mark Twain called it a good walk spoiled.

Many others, unfamiliar with the sport's exacting nature, sneer at people who spend hours outside struggling to maneuver a little white ball into a small cup embedded in impossibly short grass.

Now, in a case with harsh implications, the nation's high court is asked to force a rule change that could alter the nature of the game. Notwithstanding golf's many offenses, the court should leave rule-making for golf in the hands of the golf associations, just as it does with other professional sports.

Golf's social history -- replete with the worst kind of racial and class discrimination -- could make it vulnerable to court intervention. Like many other clubs, the hallowed Augusta National in Georgia, barred blacks from its Masters tournament for years. And the sport's professional ranks -- despite the dominance of Tiger Woods -- remain a far cry from the melting-pot ideal.

Still, the matter at hand has to do with the very nature of the game, not its discriminatory trappings. A group of disabled golfers wants the Professional Golfers Association to bend rules forbidding the use of golf carts in tournament play. The very essence of golf is rules rigidly and even cruelly enforced, so this case does present a serious issue for the high court.

In lower courts, the best known of these litigants, Casey Martin, won the right to use a cart, arguing that his situation was covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. He suffers from a painful circulatory disorder that won't allow him to walk four rounds without excruciating pain. He says he'll have to leave the game if a cart is not allowed.

Mr. Martin has a difficult case to make before the Supreme Court. He argues that walking is not fundamental to the game. Just executing the shots is required to keep faith, he says.

But that's just not so. Golf involves striking the ball squarely, consistently and under the physical pressure brought to bear by walking. Otherwise, the game could be played inside with computers tracking ball flight and distance and accuracy.

The idea that walking is essential had more force when the tour included 36-hole final matches. Older fans remember Ken Venturi, the TV analyst, who barely managed to finish when he won the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in punishing heat.

That sort of challenge is rare, but players are more and more driven to a high degree of physical conditioning so they can perform at peak efficiency at the end of a week in which they have practiced, played and walked 18 holes four days in a row. The idea is to find a way to control nerves under physical and competitive stress. Walking is fundamental to that goal.

It may seem harsh for Mr. Martin and others with disabilities -- but golf's reasoning here is sound.

The PGA tour has every right to protect its rules, including an insistence that walking is essential to the game.

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