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Disabled golfer's good ride could be spoiled in court
POTOMAC, Maryland (CNN) -- Casey Martin rocketed his drive across the water on the fourth hole of the Tournament Players' Course at Avenel. No one was measuring, but it seemed nearly 300 yards to me. Why not? Martin's drives are among the longest on the professional golfers' tour.
What's even more impressive than what Martin does is how he does it. The Oregon native is legally disabled by a congenital circulatory disease -- Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome -- in his withered right leg.
I walked part of the course as Martin played in a pro-am round preceding the Kemper Insurance Open. He rode.
Martin sued the PGA Tour to be allowed to use a golf cart as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and won. Now the PGA Tour is preparing to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court which has been giving shape to the limits and reach of the ADA in recent cases. Martin wishes they'd let the matter rest.
The tour's logic
"Their reason why they say they're fighting it is it's not so much me," Martin parses out the tour's logic. "It's what happens if a long list of guys come with complaints and now they have to accommodate them."
There's not a long list. There are just two. Indiana club professional Ford Olinger has a degenerative condition that impairs his ability to walk. He sued the United States Golf Association for permission to use a cart to qualify for the U.S. Open, a tournament run by the USGA. Olinger lost.
On back-to-back days in March, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Martin's legal victory and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Olinger's effort to overturn his legal defeat.
"Nothing against Casey," Olinger says. "But he got to ride...and I got to walk."
The two golf pros have talked, some time ago, but not met.
"He's doing what I did, you know, and so I support him in his decision to do it," Martin says.
Complicates Martin case
Olinger is appealing for a rehearing by the 7th Circuit and could later appeal to the Supreme Court. That complicates Martin's case. The Supreme Court might be inclined to let Martin's lower court victory stand. When lower court rulings conflict, it increases the likelihood of the justices sorting out the split in opinions.
"It's out of my hands," Casey shrugs. "The Lord's in control, and he'll deal with it."
The Lord's timetable has been set by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She's given the PGA Tour an extra 30 days until July 5 to file an appeal with the Supreme Court. The tour's request said it "now intends to file," though tour officials say they have "not made an announcement about that."
"The very essence of competition is that competitors are to perform according to the same set of rules," the PGA Tour said in its application to the court.
Tour officials say the Olinger ruling creates a "noteworthy juxtaposition -- two similar cases with diametrically opposed rulings."
"If the courts disagree," tour spokesman Bob Combs says, "maybe it isn't so cut and dried."
In Olinger's case, the 7th Circuit said: "the decision on whether the rules of the game should be adjusted to accommodate him is best left to those who hold the future of golf in trust." The court said it would not force the USGA to make changes just for Olinger.
In Martin's case, the 9th Circuit said: "modifying the walking rule for Martin was a reasonable accommodation that did not fundamentally alter the nature of PGA tournaments."
Riding down the fairway in a cart surrounded by other players and caddies on foot does set Martin apart. Cart critics say walking is the way the pros are meant to play the game.
"Casey Martin, play the easy way," one gallery spectator remarked as Martin rode up to the first tee to meet his amateur partners for the round. It was the only negative comment I heard during the day.
Martin was upset, though, during Sunday's final round of the tournament when someone in the gallery audibly called him "cheater."
The ADA requires accommodation in public places for individuals who are limited in a major life function. For Martin, that disability is walking. "Most people think I don't walk at all, and that's not true," Martin explains, describing the support stockings that allow him enough mobility to get around the greens. "There's more walking than you might think, but at the same time it's certainly not as much as the other guys."
More common than the critics are the fans who spot Martin's cart and thrust hats, scorecards and golf balls at him to sign while they encourage his effort. He is a hero to others with handicaps. A young deaf man happily "signed" to his companion's video camera to describe his encounter with Martin at the fourth tee.
Just as his legal fate is in limbo, so is Martin's golfing fate. He has to do well this year to stay on the PGA Tour, rather than drop back to golf's minor leagues.
"I've had a slow start," Martin told me. At the Kemper he was in the hunt for three rounds, but faltered Sunday and wound up even par. His $7,533 in earnings for the week won't boost his ranking much.
There are a lot more stops on the PGA Tour this year, but there's only one more stop on Casey Martin's legal tour. If the justices agree to hear the appeal the PGA Tour is expected to make, Martin could find himself detouring from the course to the court, perhaps one day this fall.
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