Cheer this for the heart, not the cart


FOR SUCH A PROLONGED, complicated legal squabble, the disagreement between the PGA Tour and disabled golfer Casey Martin actually was pretty simple to understand. The Tour chose to view the case philosophically, as a matter of cold, hard-hearted theory. Martin viewed it realistically, emotionally - how could he not?

Both sides had some valid arguments to make, which was why each felt strongly enough to dig in and take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where Martin won yesterday when the court ruled 7-2 in his favor, upholding a 1998 lower-court decision granting him the right to use a cart in PGA Tour events.

If you have a heart, any heart, you had to cheer the news. Martin, who played at Stanford with Tiger Woods, has a severe circulatory disorder that obstructs the flow of blood to his right leg and heart. He can barely walk on his withering leg and gets exhausted even when riding 18 holes, yet he is still capable enough as a golfer to float on the fringe between the PGA Tour and its minor-league Tour.

The guy can play, but giving him the right to ride isn't going to turn the golf world upside down or skew it even slightly.

Giving him the right to ride isn't the same as giving, say, Woods the right to ride.

The Tour didn't see that distinction, taking the larger, theoretical view that any riding at any event was a thorn in the side of fair competition - an argument not without some merit. Yet failing to grasp the distinction that Martin's case was special ended up costing the Tour millions in legal fees and even more in goodwill as it played the ogre trying to push a disabled guy out of the game.

Bad move.

The Tour's motives weren't as terrible as they appeared, but it got what it deserved in the end: a legal loss amounting to a flogging in the court of public relations. Next time, the guys in the PGA office will have a heart.

They were just trying to protect their right to govern their business, a reasonable aim. But they forgot to step back and look at the case realistically, in more human terms. That's what every other legal body did, including the Supreme Court. Listen to what Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion:

"We have no doubt that allowing Martin to use a golf cart [will] not fundamentally alter the nature of the PGA Tour's tournaments."

It's hard to argue when you look at Martin's career, which has been stuck in neutral even though he has ridden in a cart every day for the past three years. Has it given him an unfair advantage? No way. His best showing this year is a tie for 34th in the famed Louisiana Open.

All the cart does is get him into the game, not tilt its otherwise level playing field.

All the cart does is give him a chance to play despite his disability.

Now, if the Supreme Court had ruled that allowing any golfer to ride in a cart "would not fundamentally alter" a tournament, we'd have a serious problem. That's wrong. A healthy golfer who rides in a cart for 18 holes does, indeed, have an advantage over a healthy golfer who walks 18. That's as obvious as it is logical. Fatigue might not be the game's decisive factor, but it can make a difference. If you doubt it, well, you just haven't played the game.

Such a ruling could have opened the door to a dangerous, fundamental change in the relationship between the sports and legal worlds, giving the courts greater authority to govern leagues and games when, in fact, the courts really have no business butting in. Riding isn't an advantage? That would have illuminated the lack of understanding the courts potentially could bring to governing sports.

But fortunately, the Supreme Court's ruling didn't cover golf's rules in regard to healthy competitors - just one specific, talented, disabled competitor. So everyone wringing their hands can just relax. The Tour isn't going to be backed into the corner of granting exceptions to anyone with any kind of health issue. The courts aren't going to start ruling on the legality of various officials' calls in football, basketball, etc. People aren't going to start suing to get into the NBA citing the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, on which grounds Martin sued; the act excludes exceptions that would "fundamentally alter" what existed before.

Sports will continue, the same as they ever were, and golf will continue, the same as it ever was - only with one brave, remarkable guy out there on the fringe trying to hack out a career.

His was a special case from the beginning, an exception, the outgrowth of a sad and unique set of circumstances - and that's why Martin won in the end yesterday. In a cold court of law, he was the one with the heart.

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