Golfer tests limits of disability act

Today, high court begins weighing whether Casey Martin can ride in a cart during pro tournaments.

The Americans with Disabilities Act employs the force of federal law to promote the idea that Americans should be included in jobs and other activities for their abilities rather than excluded for their disabilities.

If a "reasonable" accommodation at a public place can help level the playing field - so to speak - the law requires it be done.

But what happens when the public place is literally a playing field, and the disabled person seeking accommodation is a professional athlete competing for millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements?

That's the question the US Supreme Court takes up today when it considers the case of Casey Martin, a pro golfer with a walking disability, who sued the PGA Tour after officials refused to allow him to ride in a golf cart in major tournaments.

Professional Golfers Association rules require that competitors walk the entire course as they make their shots. But Mr. Martin suffers from what doctors say is a severe circulatory condition in his right leg.

To much of the professional golfing establishment, Martin's case is a direct assault on golfing tradition. In addition, it is seen by some as an attack on the ability of private professional sports organizations to set and enforce their own rules for competition without being second-guessed by lawyers and federal judges.

To supporters of disability rights, the case is a potential landmark, holding the prospect of prying open some of the most exclusive doors in the nation to the disabled.

"This case symbolizes what the ADA is all about," says Sharon Masling of the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, a group that represents disabilities rights programs. "Here you have an extremely talented individual who has reached the highest levels of his profession, who seeks a reasonable modification of the rules," Ms. Masling says. "And the PGA is saying, 'No, the rules are the rules are the rules.' "

When he was a top college golfer at Stanford University, intercollegiate athletics officials permitted the young and talented Martin to use a cart while other competitors walked. But as he attempted to join the ranks of professional golfers, PGA officials weren't as accommodating.

Both a federal magistrate judge in 1997 and a federal appeals court panel in 2000 ordered the PGA to allow Martin to use a cart. He has competed with a cart ever since, and in 1998 became the first golfer in the history of the US Open - since it began in 1895 - to compete without actually walking the course.

Martin's case has already sparked other suits by disabled golfers. In March, an Indiana golfer lost his bid to use a cart in pro tournaments when a federal appeals court threw out his case. In August, a federal judge in Texas ordered the US Golf Association to permit a disabled golfer to use a cart. That case is under appeal.

At the center of Martin's case are two questions. First, whether the ADA covers athletes in professional competitions. Second, whether the ADA mandates that a rule of the competition be waived for only one athlete as an accommodation for that athlete's disability.

Title III of the ADA bars discrimination based on disability at public places such as hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, and golf courses, among other locations.

Lawyers for Martin say that by mentioning golf courses in the law, Congress intended to extend the protections of the ADA to professional golfers competing in tournaments, not just weekend duffers and others seeking access to the local links.

Lawyers for the PGA counter that the ADA doesn't apply to professional golfers engaged in high-stakes tournament play. The golfers aren't seeking access to the golf course, rather they are providing a service to the PGA - as featured participants in the tournament. Such independent contractors, the PGA lawyers say, are not covered by the ADA.

In addition, the PGA lawyers argue that permitting one of more than 100 golfers to use a golf cart while all other golfers must walk the course during a four-day-long tournament grants an advantage to one player that could affect the outcome of the tournament.

"Unlike recreational golf, or less rigorous professional events, the highest-level tour events require shots be executed under the most demanding conditions, including the fatigue induced by walking the golf course over four days," writes H. Bartow Farr III in his brief on behalf of the PGA. "Because golf is a game of precision, even small changes resulting from fatigue can affect the ability of professional golfers to make difficult shots."

Mr. Farr adds, "Because the difference in relative scores among golfers is slight, even minor changes in shotmaking ability can mean the difference between success and failure on the tour."

Lawyers for Martin disagree.

"Mr. Martin is not asking for a wider golf hole, or a few strokes in 'handicap,' " writes Roy Reardon in his brief on Martin's behalf. "He is not asking to change the rules of the game; he is asking only to be allowed to get to the game, which is exactly what the ADA requires."

In his 1997 decision in the Martin case, Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin ruled that "the fatigue factor injected into the game of golf by walking the course cannot be deemed significant under normal circumstances."

The judge added that because of his disability, Martin "easily endures greater fatigue even with a cart than his able-bodied competitors do by walking."

PGA lawyers say such a standard, if upheld, would transform the game. "It would change tour events dramatically if players could lay claim to the use of a golf cart for some or all of a tournament on the ground that they will still endure the same amount of fatigue as able-bodied competitors...." writes Farr.

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