Golf's 'Tradition' Handicap

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Last week, the Masters Golf tournament reminded us how good golf can be. The image of the Golden Bear still playing on the leader board at age 58 inspired us. Fred Couples and Mark O'Meara shook hands heartily in a genuine display of sportsmanship. This has significance in an era of professional sports where acts as bizarre as strangling your coach result in only minor sanctions. Indeed, golf remains a gentleman and gentlewoman's sport.

Did this same sport show us a seamy side as it tried to shut out Casey Martin, who invoked the Americans with Disabilities Act in suing the PGA Tour to allow him to ride a cart in tournaments? A February federal court ruling saved his career but couldn't protect him from bitter feelings even among the gentlemen of the sport. Tom Watson said, "I have compassion for Casey Martin but contempt for the court ruling."

Watson and others hide an elitist sentiment behind a sensible argument: No one should have an unfair advantage. Giving Mr. Martin a golf cart would be such an advantage, they say.

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The court ruling in Martin's favor said, "To say a person in his condition, by riding in a cart, is at a competitive advantage is a gross distortion of reality." The court is right. If all golfers in the PGA were forced to wear painful bindings on one of their legs and hobble to the ball, Martin might have an advantage by playing in a cart. Instead, he hobbles, barely able to walk even from his cart to the ball. Giving him a cart levels the playing field - it makes it possible for him to play.

Martin just wants to play golf, saying, "Golf is a big game, big enough to accommodate my situation." I think he gives golf too much credit. Other sports seem bigger in this regard. Football accommodated John Dempsey who kicked in the National Football League wearing a flat-toed shoe because of his deformed foot. He set a field goal record of 63 yards which stands today. Though it could be argued his flat-toed shoe gave him something extra in kicking the ball, the NFL didn't ban him from kicking.

Likewise, Aimee Mullins is an NCAA division I track star for Georgetown University. With no legs from the knees down, she runs on two curved pieces of flexible steel. Maybe she has some advantage. She might get some spring from the metal and certainly doesn't suffer a runner's typical physical ailments. Shouldn't she be banned from competitive play? Aren't feet a part of the sport? Again, no one has made such an argument because it would sound silly. Why does the same argument carry so much weight when made with regard to golf?

The "walking is part of the game" argument thinly disguises an elitism in golf which is given the code word "tradition." There is great tradition in golf. There is also bad tradition. For example, some clubs still adhere to a "whites only" tradition. This may help explain why African-Americans thrive in almost all other sports but make up only about three percent of all golfers today. Tiger Woods, ascendancy held so much novelty because golf, for so long, has managed to shut its doors to an entire race.

To say walking is a part of the game oversimplifies the issue. Who says what is and isn't a part of the game? Tennis changed to allow oversized rackets. Speed skating has a new skate which shattered world records at the Nagano Olympics. Basketball now has a three-point shot. Sports evolve, rules change.

In America, the number one rule has always been fairness of opportunity. Sports will never be able to accommodate all disabilities, but they are big enough to accommodate something as simple as Martin's bum leg.

Genteel and graceful, golf is a wonderful sport played on courses of stirring beauty. Golf uniquely accommodates players of all ages, sizes, and shapes. It allows fathers to play with sons and mothers with daughters. The Masters reminds us of what golf is and stirs in us a hope of what it can be.

* Matthew James Miller, a federal law enforcement officer in Sioux Falls, S.D. is an avid but, he says, mediocre golfer.

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