(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, August 1, 2001)
The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming Casey Martin's right to use a cart in PGA tournaments generated a great deal of negative editorial reaction. Sadly, the sight of a pro golfer unable to walk a tournament course playing alongside able-bodied pros turns off a lot of people, not because of any loyalty to a PGA rule, but because they can't deal with the fact that a disabled person can be equal to their idols.
Consider certain historical points related to the walking rule that were not discussed during the recent court battle. First, let's go way, way back into history, to the early days of golf in Scotland. Among the pioneers of the game were Scottish nobles, privileged men who, no doubt, preferred riding to walking, until they realized two problems with the arrangement:
Horses will answer nature's call wherever they happen to be. This not only makes fairways and greens harder to negotiate, but adds unwelcome drama to the question of where the ball is likely to land--and where it might bounce, or not, if it hits a certain impediment. Worse, the fresher the impediment, the harder it is for the golfer to handle the ball. This might explain the ubiquitous ball-washing apparatus that can be found on any golf course today.
Aside from the "littering" problem, the animal-loving Scots didn't like the high casualty rate among horses who stepped into the holes on the greens, broke their legs, and had to be destroyed.
Thus, walking the course rather than riding the horse became the standard, and eventually the rule, in golf, especially in tournament play. So went the game for several hundred years, until the dawn of the twentieth century and mechanized transportation.
The earliest motorized carts didn't litter the way a horse does, and they were unlikely to get stuck in green holes and break something, but they still presented problems. Petroleum-based fuels used in early cart motors tended to pollute the pristine atmosphere of park-like golf courses, choking people and plants, and hard rubber automobile-type tires added injury to insult by tearing up lush course lawns. It's perfectly understandable that both club and tournament officials instituted blanket bans against those mechanical monstrosities.
Move ahead in time to the advent of cleaner, more efficient electric carts with tires made of synthetic rubber that neither pollute nor chew up the sod. Because tradition is a jealous god, management at many clubs took years to rise above prejudice and allow even casual players to bring these superior machines onto their courses. But when the question arose among PGA officials, the argument had less to do with the effect on the environment and far more to do with the public image of the game of golf.
To wit, golf is perceived as a rich man's game that offers participants no real athletic challenge. In fact, golf mavens had an even tougher row to hoe in this respect than tennis buffs, because the latter sport does put definite physical demands on a player. With caddies doing the real work of hauling around their clubs, those poor golf pros needed some way to project an image of athleticism to the public at large, so the walking rule became sacrosanct and was thenceforth set in stone.
Then along came Casey Martin.
Now, Martin is no Tiger Woods, but he is good enough to have played alongside the man-who-is-perhaps-the-greatest-phenom-of-all-time, not to mention Notah Begay, on Stanford University's four-man golf team in the early 1990s. Fortunately, the younger Martin’s leg was stronger and he could get around the course under his own power, though that part of the game really has nothing to do with scoring and, thus, the real competition. After a successful college run, Martin was graduated into the real world, and the PGA's oversight of the (then) Nike tour, the "minor league" of pro golf.
And that's when it all hit the fan.
To play as a pro, first on the Nike tour and, in 2000, in the "show"--the PGA Tour--an older and more disabled Martin required the power of a court order to use a cart in tournaments while his case was twice decided in his favor and twice appealed by the PGA, until it finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Along the way, the emotional stress contributed detrimentally to the quality of his play and the deterioration of his progressive medical condition.
Martin is a fighter, a real athlete. He continues to hack away, back on the (now) Buy.com tour, without complaint. In fact, for the benefit of other disabled athletes, he hopes someone else will take up the cause and use his favorable decision to try to force a blanket turnabout in the PGA's insistence that the walking rule still stands except for Casey Martin.
But the opinion of one columnist that the Martin decision will fundamentally change the nature of all pro sports by letting all sorts of unqualified disabled people into competition meant for otherwise capable people is pure BUNK! (This is a family newspaper, so I have to stick with that word!)
Allowing a disabled man to play golf for money doesn't change anything. Allowing a HUNDRED disabled people to play pro golf still will have no effect on any game as it has always stood. Golf is still scored by counting the number of strokes a player needs to hit that little ball from the tee to the cup on the green. Period. There is no way a cart changes that.
It doesn't mean blind people will suddenly invade the Big Leagues and demand a chance to try to hit a baseball alongside Luis Gonzalez. People with visual disabilities have their own game, called "beep baseball" or "beep ball." People in wheelchairs play in their own basketball leagues and compete in marathons, and their participation in various sports has not only not caused any unwelcome ripples at the pro level, it has enhanced the range of sports which people enjoy, both as participants and as spectators, and it has given people who face all sorts of challenges in their lives heroes--REAL heroes--to look up to.
Martin's opponents argue for the proverbial "level playing field." The only way to even things up between Casey and the other pros, with or without a cart, is for all able-bodied tournament contestants to play 18 holes with hundred-pound weights strapped to their right legs. Believe me, that would put an end to their whining about any sort of "level" playing field.
As for the sacredness of The Rules, witness the designated hitter (DH) rule of the American Baseball League. Instituted only a few short decades ago, this bit of insanity can easily be de-instituted with the stroke of a pen and a chink in Bud Selig's heart.
Change the fundamental makeup of pro sports? I hope to shout! The decision in Casey Martin's favor can only make all sport better when one man who can hit a ball from tee to that little cup on the green in fewer strokes than most of the people on the planet is given a chance to do that screwy thing for a living!
On the other hand, one columnist did respond positively to the Martin decision. In his Tribune Media Services column published in the June 7, 2001, edition of the Casa Grande "Dispatch," Bob Greene had a better suggestion for those poor pro golfers who are once again searching for a way to regain their lost image of athleticism. He suggested they should lose the caddies and carry their own golf bags around the course!
I second the motion!