Disabled golfer wins right to ride

In a blow to the canons and traditions of golf, Casey Martin may use a cart to compete in major tournaments.

The disabled professional golfer yesterday won his bid to force the PGA Tour to waive one of its rules and allow him to use a golf cart rather than walk the full length of the course like all other pro golfers.

The 7-to-2 decision by the US Supreme Court is a major victory for disabilities-rights advocates and millions of disabled Americans, who viewed Mr. Martin's plight as a symbol of their own struggle for full access to the American way of life.

In its decision, the court disagreed with much of the professional-golf establishment, which argued that the professional golfers' association, not judges and lawyers, should be the one to set rules for how the nation's most competitive golf tournaments are conducted.

A majority of justices sided with disability-rights advocates, ruling that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires professional sports associations like the PGA to change the rules of their competitions when a "reasonable modification" to those rules will facilitate participation in the event by an athlete with a disability.

"The walking rule is at best peripheral to the nature of [the PGA's] athletic events, and thus it might be waived in individual cases without working a fundamental alteration [of a championship golf game]," writes Justice John Paul Stevens in the majority opinion.

"[The PGA's] claim that all the substantive rules for its 'highest-level' competitions are sacrosanct and cannot be modified under any circumstances is effectively a contention that it is exempt from Title III's reasonable modification requirement. But that provision carves out no exemption for elite athletics," writes Justice Stevens, who is himself an avid golfer.

The ruling is a defeat for those who believe professional athletic competitions should be exempt from disabilities-rights laws because any attempt to accommodate one competitor and not all the others may create unfair advantages. Competition, by its very nature, seeks to discriminate against those with lesser abilities, these analysts say.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in a blistering and, at times, sarcastic dissent, says the majority misreads the federal disabilities law to apply rules made to facilitate the access of customers - like golf spectators - to those who are competing in the tournament.

He predicts the decision will provide "a rich source of lucrative litigation."

"One can envision the parents of a Little League player with attention deficit disorder trying to convince a judge that their son's disability makes it at least 25 percent more difficult to hit a pitched ball," writes Scalia in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. "If they are successful, the only thing that could prevent a court order giving the kid four strikes would be a judicial determination that, in baseball, three strikes are metaphysically necessary, which is quite absurd."

Scalia said in his dissent that the case wasn't about whether the PGA "ought not" allow Martin to use a golf cart, but rather whether the ADA requires that result.

Martin had said that if he lost at the Supreme Court, it would end his chances of competing on the PGA Tour.

The Stanford University graduate and classmate of Tiger Woods has been diagnosed with a severe circulatory condition in his right leg. Nonetheless, he is regarded as a very talented golfer and was able to compete successfully in intercollegiate golf tournaments by using a golf cart.

When he decided to turn pro, he won a spot on the PGA Tour after surviving a rigorous round of qualifying matches.

Although PGA rules permit golfers to use carts in the qualifying events, they bar the use of carts in all PGA tournaments. When PGA officials refused to waive the rule for Martin, he sued under the ADA.

PGA officials say that walking several miles across the golf course while completing the shots injects an element of fatigue into the competition. They say that in close matches, fatigue can determine the outcome of the tournament.

The same arguments were made to a federal magistrate judge and a federal appeals court panel. But both agreed with Martin that allowing a disabled golfer to use a cart would not fundamentally change the game or grant an unfair advantage to the player with the cart.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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