Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the PGA must make an exception for Casey Martin, the Supreme Court says.
By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 2001
The pain in his lower right leg persists, and he will still walk with a limp, but Casey Martin's ability to play professional golf was made easier Tuesday when the Supreme Court ruled that he can ride a cart in PGA Tour events.
The court ruled 7-2 that the Americans With Disabilities Act requires the PGA Tour to accommodate Martin's degenerative leg ailment and that doing so will not fundamentally change the game.
"It's a big win for me, but it's not the end of the line," Martin said in a conference call with reporters. "I have to keep hanging in there and working hard. The end of the story is certainly not written."
Martin, who said he could not compete without riding in a cart, sued the PGA Tour in 1997. The tour appealed to the Supreme Court after two lower courts ruled in Martin's favor.
PGA commissioner Tim Finchem said Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling appears to allow only a narrow opening for others to pursue such an accommodation.
"Given the way the opinion was written, I must say that I'm pleased," Finchem said. "Casey's (part) is finished, and yet we still have a reasonably good chance to maintain the sport as we know it. . . . Hopefully, the way this opinion is written, we can have our cake and eat it, too."
Martin's attorney, Roy Reardon, agreed with Finchem that the ruling will not favor golfers with ailments who simply want to ride a cart in competition. But, Reardon said, there will be individual instances, especially in golf.
"For everyone who applies for an exemption, that person will have to prove disability and what that person wants to use, in Casey's case a cart, will be a reasonable accommodation. And that it won't fundamentally alter the game," Reardon said.
The court found that the PGA Tour is a "public accommodation" and is bound by the 1990 ADA provisions.
"We have no doubt that allowing Martin to use a golf cart would not fundamentally alter the nature of the PGA Tour's tournaments," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
Martin, who turns 29 Saturday, has Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a rare circulatory disorder that restricts circulation in his lower right leg. The birth defect makes walking extremely painful and poses the risk of hemorrhage, blood clots and fractures of weakened bones.
He played on Stanford's 1994 championship team and, as his disease progressed, got waivers of the walking rule from the NCAA and Pacific-10 Conference.
His victories against the PGA Tour in lower courts have enabled him to use a cart for the past three years at various professional levels. He won the Lakeland Classic on the Nike Tour in 1998, then earned his PGA Tour card for 2000 by finishing among the top 15 money winners on the Buy.com Tour in 1999.
He was unable to keep his PGA Tour card last year and dropped back to the Buy.com Tour, where he has made just four cuts in eight events and earned $6,433.
"I can use all the help I can get right now," Martin said. "It was my wish to get this past me and start playing like I'm capable. I don't think my recent struggles are because of this. I've had a lot on my mind, but I've struggled to hit the shots I want to hit. When I'm over a shot, I'm not thinking about the court decision."
Martin was prepared to give up his career as a professional golfer had the decision not gone his way. Walking 18 holes a day, 72 holes a tournament -- the equivalent of 20 to 25 miles -- was too painful and dangerous. Martin said he risks amputation of the leg.
"I think I'm in less pain today than I was 31/2 years ago when I was walking quite a bit on a day-to-day basis. It's helped," he said. "It's taken some of the major stress and pressure I was dealing with away. I haven't cured anything. My leg is still there. I still have issues. But I'm probably in a little less pain at night than I was a few years ago."
Stevens was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices David Souter, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sandra Day O'Connor.
Stevens said the PGA Tour's walking rule, which applies only at top-level tournaments, was "at best peripheral" and "not an indispensable feature" of golf at any level. "Thus it might be waived in individual cases without working a fundamental alteration," he said.
The court stressed the need to evaluate each case on an individual basis. Only those for whom walking was "beyond their capacity," and not simply uncomfortable or difficult, would qualify for an exemption, Stevens said.
Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, describing the majority opinion as an exercise in "benevolent compassion" and saying the court should not have been involved. Scalia's dissent, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, suggested sarcastically that similar reasoning could be used in the example of a Little League baseball player who suffers from attention deficit-disorder.
"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 wrote.
"This is not about Casey Martin," said PGA player Hal Sutton in Dublin, Ohio, where he was preparing for this week's Memorial Tournament. "It's about the possibilities it opens up. The next person's disabilities . . . it might not be as clear.
"I'm happy for Casey Martin. I'm disappointed that they didn't see that a golf cart is an added advantage. I think it's going to create a big problem. Who's the governing body of the door that they opened?"
The PGA Tour took a public relations hit for fighting Martin. Golf legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus testified against Martin, saying walking was integral to the game. Finchem has maintained all along that the case was never about Martin, but about the tour's ability to set its own rules.
The case became a rallying point for disability-rights groups. Political luminaries such as former President George Bush, former Sen. Bob Dole and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, an original sponsor of the ADA, filed friend of the court briefs on Martin's behalf, as did President Bill Clinton's Justice Department.
Martin said he plans to take the next two weeks off before resuming his Buy.com Tour schedule at the Cleveland Open. His hope is to earn enough money to finish among the top 15 players, thus earning a spot on the PGA Tour. If not, he will return to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament this fall.
"I'm prepared to play golf like everyone else and handle those situations like everyone else does," he said.
- Information from the New York Times and Washington Post was included in this report.