The Casey Martin Case: The Supreme Court Takes Up Golf

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AMY E. CONN/AP

Cart Blanch: Over PGA protests, Martin will be allowed to ride the links

Someone very wise once said, "A sport is something that you can’t ask someone else to do for you." In other words, if I were confined to a wheelchair, I could still play chess with exactly the same degree of success as someone who is able-bodied. By that definition, chess is not a sport.

Golf is a sport. But what, exactly, makes golf a sport? Is it physical complexities of the golfer’s swing? The subtleties of strategy? Is it the ability to walk across an 18-hole golf course in the heat of summer?

Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court took a giant step toward answering that question. The Court ruled 7-2 that a federal disability bias law gives golfer Casey Martin, who suffers from a circulatory disorder that makes walking very painful, a legal right to travel in a golf cart between holes in competition. In other words, Martin won’t be walking — but he will still be a golfer.

The decision is a serious blow to the PGA, whose bylaws dictate that each golfer must walk on his own steam throughout tournament play. In the Court’s majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out that the ostensible purpose of the walking rule is to fatigue the players, and since Martin suffers from at least that level of fatigue without walking, the PGA should simply consider his cart use an equalizer. Stevens also referred to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which bans discrimination against the disabled in "public accommodations," including golf courses. The law dictates that "reasonable modifications" must be made to accommodate the disabled unless those changes would alter the nature of the event or space.

Justices Scalia and Thomas, who banded together in dissent, argued that by granting Martin the privilege of cart use, the Court was creating "individualized rules… for talented but disabled athletes." There is considerable support for the conservative judges’ stance in the golfing world; legends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer have spoken out against allowing carts into competition, citing the ability to walk a course as an essential part of golfing.

Who’s right? It doesn’t really matter; a majority ruling from the Supreme Court tends to eliminate the need for philosophical debate. But it is an interesting question: What is the fundamental aspect of golf that makes it a sport? And can Casey Martin truly consider himself a "golfer" if he rides from fairway to fairway rather than trekking alongside his competition? If we answer "no," we need to be willing to carry our argument to its ultimate conclusion: If Martin is not physically capable of walking the course, and we agree he should not be permitted to compete with the aid of a cart, then we are cutting Martin out of golf, despite his talent for every other aspect of the game (swinging at, hitting and placing a tiny white ball on a giant swath of grass).

Once you’ve opened this particular Pandora’s Box, it’s awfully tempting to take the debate a step further: Are professional or other high-level golfers truly participating in their sport if they allow caddies to carry their 30-pound bags of clubs? Should we consider the weekend warriors who carry their own bags the only "pure" golfers left on the links?

It all comes back to the definition of sport. And if you buy into the theory outlined at the story of this story, Casey Martin engages daily in the sport of golf. He is incredibly gifted at the fundamental aspects of his game. In other words, he goes out on the course and hits golf balls with precisely the right force and direction to put them in or near the hole. He may get a ride in a golf cart between shots, but no one takes his shots for him.

Theoretically, of course, we could end this entire debate with a simple decree. Attention PGA golfers: From this moment on, everybody gets a golf cart. Think it bastardizes the game? Don’t use it. Feeling a bit wobbly after the 15th hole? Hop right in. The choice is yours.