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Martin case reaches US Supreme Court

Casey Martin longs for the day when he is known as an ordinary golfer, instead of the sport's most famous litigant. But his career could very well be over before the legal battle is.

Martin, suffering from a painful and brittle right leg, won a lawsuit three years ago for the right to use a golf cart on the PGA Tour. The Tour has appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on Wednesday, Jan. 17.

"There's no recourse for me after this,'' said Martin, who will attend the court proceedings with his family.

Martin, 28, has been allowed to use a cart pending appeals. However, his leg, afflicted by a rare circulatory disorder, is getting weaker. Amputation may become necessary. Or he could step the wrong way and the leg could snap, ending his career.

Martin's game is also down. He finished in a tie for 23rd at the 1998 U.S. Open and qualified for the PGA Tour last year but did not play well enough to keep his card for 2001. Playing on a sponsor's exemption at the Tucson Open, his first tournament of the season, he failed to make the cut.

The case has sharply divided a sport that cherishes rules and tradition.

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer spoke out against the notion of Martin -- or any player -- using a cart in an elite competition to alleviate a disability. Using a cart would give Martin an edge over opponents, they said, and take away a basic, critical aspect of the game: the ability to walk the terrain of an 18-hole course.

Active players seem more open to the idea, though they, too, have reservations.

Casey Martins "Cart" case finally reaches the highest court in the USA. Allsport.

"I think it's important that every major sport has the right to have competitive rules,'' said Phil Mickelson. "On the same token, I don't feel by having somebody ride a cart, he's going to beat me or shoot lower scores because of that.''

Tiger Woods, the best player in the world and one of its most influential athletes, was a teammate of Martin's at Stanford University, and the two used to room together on road trips. Woods said Martin sometimes would be in so much pain that he couldn't get up to use the bathroom.

"Unfortunately, I have emotions involved, so it would be hard to separate that,'' Woods said. "I know Casey really well, so obviously my allegiance would be more toward Casey.''

Martin was born with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome. Blood flow to his right leg is restricted, leaving it withered and causing him intense pain. Walking an entire golf course is nearly impossible.

Until 1997, Martin's most notable accomplishment was being part of the 1994 Stanford team that won the NCAA championship (the year prior to Woods's arrival at the school). Martin was good enough to earn a paycheck as a pro but had no hope of playing on the PGA tour because of its no-cart rule. The organization allows carts only on the Senior PGA Tour, reserved for players 50 and over.

Martin sued the PGA Tour, citing a provision of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The federal law requires "reasonable accommodation'' to allow disabled people to take part in activities at public places, including recreational areas such as golf courses.

But businesses or groups are not required to make such an accommodation if it amounts to a "fundamental alteration'' of their goods or services.

A federal judge in 1998 sided with Martin, ruling that walking is not a fundamental part of the game and that allowing Martin to use a cart would not "fundamentally alter'' PGA Tour events.

A federal appeals court affirmed the ruling last March. But the PGA Tour appealed to the Supreme Court, insisting that it has the right to determine the rules for its own competition.

"We think it's bad law to conclude the ADA covers sports competitions, especially professional competitions on the playing field,'' said Tim Finchem, PGA commissioner.

Some of those sympathetic to the PGA Tour's case say that if Martin can ride his cart, then other players with physical ailments -- Fred Couples has a bad back, for instance -- should be given special consideration.

Martin's father dismisses that reasoning, saying there is no comparison between such maladies and his son's permanent disorder.

"Casey would give anything not to have to take a golf cart, because he doesn't enjoy using a golf cart,'' King Martin said. He added that the PGA Tour "had an opportunity to distinguish themselves as a sport of the people and be more inclusive, and they didn't choose to do that.''

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