How physical is the game of golf? And do professional sports associations have the right to set their own rules? These questions were brought to new light by one golfer, Casey Martin, as he attempted to join the ranks of the Professional Golfers Association (PGA). Martin suffers from a rare birth defect called Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, which severely weakened his right leg. He cannot walk an eighteen-hole course; yet using a golf cart is in violation of PGA Tour rules. In order to play, Martin sued the PGA under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The three-year case ended in a controversial decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A native of Eugene, Oregon, Martin was started in golf by his father, King Martin, at age six. But Casey confessed that his first love was for another sport. "I would have played basketball in a minute" if not for his leg, he told Golf Digest writer Tim Rosaforte. "I can't move, so I can't play." He recalled a lifetime of pain: "I can definitely remember one of the hardest parts about growing up
was wanting to be active," Martin remarked. "I could never understand when I was done playing sports why I was in so much pain. I knew I had a problem."
A Gift for the Game
Nevertheless, the young man continued to excel on the links. "The first time [Stanford University] coach Wally Goodwin saw Casey Martin play golf in high school," noted Nick Charles in a People piece, "he noticed that the teenager kept his right leg bent just the way a good golfer should. Only later did he realize that Martin kept his right leg bent all the time." By the time Martin played on the same Stanford golf team as Tiger Woods , the disease had left the bones in his leg virtually eroded. When he played college golf, "even the opposition begged their coaches to lift the walking rule so that Martin could ride," noted Golf Digest 's Marcia Chambers. "They did, with the NCAA in full agreement." But when Martin, now a professional, approached the PGA with a cart request in 1997, "not only did the tour say no, but it refused even to look at the extensive and persuasive medical records Martin offered them," Chambers added.
In 1998 Martin was a member of the Nationwide Tour, earning his first win at the season-opening Lake-land Classic. He went on to make the cut in sixteen of twenty-two events, qualifying him to play in PGA Tours based on his low shooting scores. At the same time, the young professional became a spokesman for Nike athletic products; the shoe manufacturer created a commercial celebrating Martin's unique abilities. In 1999 Martin performed even better, placing fourteenth on the money list with $122,742. But the PGA still balked at Martin's request to use a golf cart during its Tour events. According to the association's rules, players must walk the course. Martin decided to sue.
The news of the lawsuit broke in early 1998. "It's kind of tough," King Martin told Goodwin. "We've never been sued or sued anyone in our lifetime and never dreamt that we would." After winning a temporary court order, the Martins took their case to a federal judge in Eugene. The federal court ruled that the young man could take his cart on the course; the PGA appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case three years later.
Who Is Disadvantaged?
The PGA argued that by riding between the holes, Martin would gain an unfair advantage over the players who expended energy walking. But is walking intrinsic to the game? In May 2001, the Court handed down its 7-2 decision: Martin should be entitled to play on the Tour using a cart in accordance with the ADA's guidelines for employers and businesses to adopt "reasonable accommodation" for disabled employees or customers. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority: "From early on, the essence of the game has been shot-making" with walking a peripheral component of the sport. Speaking for the dissent was Justice Antonin Scalia, who said that PGA rules deemed walking as essential to the game. He also maintained that seven of his fellow justices "wrongly identified Martin and other pro golfers as PGA Tour 'customers' covered by ADA public accommodation rules," according to a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service article by Michael Hisley.
|1972||Born June 2 in Eugene, Oregon|
|1995||Graduates from Stanford University|
|1995||Becomes professional golfer|
|1997||Joins PGA Tour|
|1998||Sues PGA for the right to play using a cart|
|2001||Supreme Court rules 7-2 in Martin's favor|
|2001||Undergoes three operations to stop leg infection|
|2002||Signs agreement with Pro Tour Memorabilia|
Reaction to the ruling, noted Sarasota Herald Tribune columnist Rich Brooks, "has been predictable. One professional golfer said it's just a matter of time before someone with a sprained back or ankle seeks permission to ride in a cart." According to the article, links star Jack Nicklaus suggested that the justices try walking a tournament course to experience the effort for themselves. To Brooks, such arguments "deserve to be countered." First, he said, "for professional golfers to cite the fatigue by walking eighteen holes is laughable. Such statements say more about the players' lack of physical conditioning than the kinetic requirements of the game." Paul Winston of Business Insurance held a similar view. The opinion of some, he said, is that "golf is a sport of athletic prowess and endurance, like the decathlon or pentathlon, rather than one of skill. I beg to differ. Some golfers … are in great shape, but it doesn't seem to help them win any more [tournaments]."
"What next?" asked a spokesperson for the Libertarian Party as quoted by Cybercast News Service: "Stilts for midgets who want to play professional basketball? How about rowboats for Olympic swimmers who suffer from aquaphobia? How about a 20-yard head start for slow people in the Olympic 100-yard dash?" Sporting News contributor Dave Kindred predicted, "Silly lawsuits will follow the Martin ruling just as silly lawsuits have followed other ADA precedents."
A Figure of Controversy
Absent in much of the debate, however, was the reality of daily life for Casey Martin. "It's not hard for Outsiders to overlook his pain, which is belied by his good looks and good nature," wrote Hisley. "He looks more like the impish Matthew Perry of the TV sitcom 'Friends' than a sad invalid." But Hisley saw a video made by Martin's attorneys of the golfer's affected limb. Within moments of being stripped of its protective wraps, "his right knee began swelling and became discolored." To Hisley, critics of the Supreme Court decision "who have not seen that swollen, discolored leg … do not understand that Martin suffers greater fatigue while using a cart than his competitors do while walking." Brian Ettkin in a Sarasota Herald-Tribune column maintained, "Golf is about ball striking and mental toughness.… TV analysts never compliment a player on his authoritative stride down the fairway."
In October, 2002, Martin spoke up for another category of golfers—women who wished to be admitted as members of the male-only Augusta National Golf Club. "I'm extremely conservative in most respects," he said to Steve Ellig in an article for Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "but on something like this, I think [Augusta National] should be forward-thinking instead of fighting it."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1994||Member of NCAA championship golf team|
|1998||Won Nike Lakeland Classic|
|1998||Became a spokesman for Nike|
|1999||Finished fourteenth on the money list with $122,742|
|2000||Made the cut in fourteen out of twenty-nine starts, PGA Tour|
|2000||Finished sixth in tour driving distance, 288.3 yards|
|2000||Finished in top 25 Touchstone Energy Tucson Open|
|2001||Supreme Court ruled in Martin's favor|
|2002||Made the cut in five out of fourteen starts, Nationwide Tour|
More than a golfer, Martin became a symbol embraced by both sides of the debate. "This goes against Martin's every intention," remarked Richard Hoffer in Sports Illustrated. "It's no fault of his that he has become more important for his news value than his swing. And it's too bad because, if he's not quite mythic, he's certainly decent beyond the requirements of his role." As for Martin, who faces the possibility of amputation, "you cannot devise a scenario where I would rather have my disability and a cart versus having two healthy legs," as he told Rosaforte. "You just can't." Asked what he would trade for two good legs, Martin replied, "All the fame and notoriety I've had. I'd give all that back in a heartbeat."
Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book II. Detroit: Gale, 1992.
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Sketch by Susan Salter