Casey Martin: A Case Full of Variables

Over the years as the Casey Martin case has received more attention, many, many commentators -- golf writers, newspaper columnists, television talk-show hosts who could care less about golf -- have spoken out on behalf of Martin against the big, bad PGA Tour. Since Martin is courageous, talented, likeable, sympathetic, and has a very good and worthwhile case, the support he's gotten isn't surprising -- especially since the PGA Tour hasn't always handled the situation as intelligently as it might have.

But principle's on the side of the Tour, in my opinion. And so I'd like to examine some of the points made by Casey Martin's defenders:

1) You see it said over and over: the Tour should allow Martin to ride, and examine subsequent cases individually as they arise. Which begs the whole question. Were there a way to make it so Casey Martin could get in on a special exemption but no one else could, that might be fine -- but of course that is exactly what won't happen, especially after all the legal rigamarole, and it's possible Martin's appeal will stand, just as he misses qualifying for next year's season -- leaving the professional golf scene with a four-wheeled precedent, but no Casey Martin.

What's more, a case-by-case review would force the PGA Tour into calculating the severity of each golfer's medical condition.

Where's the line? Is it, "if you've suffered as much pain as Casey Martin has, then you can ride, but not otherwise?" Does a sprained ankle hurt enough to merit allowing use of a cart? What other questions would enter -- would it be a matter of "Gee, can the PGA Tour's image survive a ban on golfers using carts when they're only suffering bunions?" Or, a hangover?

Of course it might be possible to grant exemptions or adjustments if there was a way to determine exactly how much of an advantage riding a cart provides or does not for Casey Martin or anyone else -- except there isn't one.

To hope for such a "case-by-case" resolution actually seems a way to register disapproval of the principle of riding carts, while allowing it in practice. Indeed the Senior PGA Tour, in permitting carts, probably has harmed the case against riding almost as much has Tom Watson by himself, who this season managed to drive all over Senior Tour courses unencumbered by his customary noisy self-righteousness about golf's traditions, apparently because he needs the money. Bringing us to the argument that 2) Carts are a part of golf. While I happen to think that they're an unfortunate part, this is probably one of Casey Martin's best contentions.

But in an age when it's becoming increasingly difficult for the average person to go to a golf course and enjoy a round without being forced to ride, thereby losing perhaps the only benefit of exercise golf has to offer, the symbolic aspect of golf carts is pretty strong -- strongly negative. Carts have largely become mandatory in this game, which would be outrageous if it weren't so silly.

3) A few months ago I was on a radio sports talk show with another writer, a columnist for a national golf weekly, and a sports-medicine physician. After we gave our opposite views of the Martin debate, the doctor cheerfully joined in to declare what he called "the tiebreaking vote." "It's a workplace issue, pure and simple," he said. It's not a workplace issue, and there is nothing pure or simple about the Casey Martin case. Without rehashing the level playing field argument, let's just say that a pro tournament is not a workplace -- it's a field of play.

And physical fitness is a requirement of pro golf. Just because it's a comparatively modest one compared to football or basketball, doesn't mean that golfers who aren't in peak condition ought, arbitrarily, to be granted exemptions to compete with those who are. Make no mistake: one reason Woods and Duval and every other top player in the world these days spends hours a day working out is because they're well aware they'll need every bit of physical resource they can to walk four or five stress-filled miles on a golf course and keep themselves mindful of the task at hand.

4) "Golf is not about walking, it's about hitting the ball." Golf is about hitting the ball -- and putting the ball, and marking your ball according to the rules, and showing up to the tee on time, and performing thousands of other rituals, big and small and even ridiculous.   


 It's not like golf is alone in having rules that to an outsider seem arbitrary or absurd. In baseball, for example, the intentional walk is practically ridiculous, when you think about it -- how come a pitcher can't simply signal the umpire to put the batter on? In football by most objective standards it's a pretty silly thing to kick an extra point, but there you go. Heck, imagine how many more promising football or baseball players there would be if someone led a successful crusade to expand the size of the team rosters by one or two? 45 or 25 are fairly arbitrary numbers after all -- but if each team allowed one more, that's would a few dozen more people who've worked and sweated just as hard as Casey Martin has to make their living playing sports.

5) "Casey Martin could hurt himself walking." Good point -- and perhaps a reason Casey Martin's playing professional tournament golf isn't something any golf tour should support. Judging from accounts, even getting in and out of his golf cart is laborious and excruciating, and the fact that he cannot simply fulfill such a relatively minimal prerequisite should be cause for concern, let alone qualification. By that token, anyone but Martin would have a better case for breaking the PGA Tour's ban.

6) Casey Martin is a very special individual. That much is clear, and beyond dispute -- and it's Casey Martin's greatest asset.

It's tempting to say that it doesn't matter that it's only been in the last forty years that being a professional athlete has acquired semi-divine status, or that there are more important things than winning golf tournaments.

On the other hand, if Casey Martin win his case, he certainly will have deserved it. What's more, there will be something fitting in golf carts entering the pro tournament scene, since for the last forty years countless whining golfers -- professional and amateur alike -- have successfully put pressure on the game to provide them with relief or insurance from any bad breaks, whether by virtue of maintaining course conditions to near-Astroturf uniformity, or permitting equipment manufacturers free rein with error-proof clubs, or pressuring designers and rule-makers to make the game "more fair." From that standpoint, carts-on-Tour would just be the latest episode of a trend, and a fitting one at that.

And golf, the last sport to acknowledge the legal and social rights of the non-elite, is still misunderstood and resented by non-golfers. If it's also unfair that the game is held to task by the machinery of democracy, maybe that too, is appropriate considering golf's lengthy history of exclusion.