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Golf News: - Posted 11th February 1998

Casey Martin wins right to use golf cart on US tour

Associated Press

Eugene, Ore. - A judge ruled today that Casey Martin can ride a golf cart on the pro tour, a landmark victory in the first case invoking federal disabilities laws to compete in a major sport.

U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin ruled that a golf course during a tournament is a place of public accommodation and is covered under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

He said Martin's lawyers proved the 25-year-old golfer is disabled and entitled to a reasonable accommodation -- which would include a cart.

"I just want to be given the chance to play, and I'm grateful for that chance now," said Martin in a news conference after the decision. "I was riding an emotional roller coaster for awhile, but I'm grateful it turned out like it did."

Martin's lawsuit sought to force the PGA Tour to accommodate his rare circulatory disorder -- Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome -- that makes it painful and even dangerous to walk. His doctors say too much stress on his withered right leg could cause it to break, and may force amputation.

"I understand why (the PGA Tour) had to pursue this like they did," Martin added. "I never really had any animosity toward the Tour like they were treating me that poorly. If they were I forgive them."

The PGA Tour contended that giving Martin a cart would give him an unfair advantage and take away the fundamental aspect of athleticism and stamina that walking brings to top-flight tournament golf.

But Coffin, who deliberated just a couple of hours, ruled that giving Martin a cart would not significantly alter the sport.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem issued a statement after the ruling, disagreeing with the judge's decision. Meanwhile, the Tour will abide by the judge's ruling and will furnish Martin with a cart during Nike Tour events.

"The PGA Tour is disappointed with the court's decision," Finchem's statement started. "In our view, the area inside the ropes at a PGA Tour event is no different than the playing field in any other professional sport, and is not therefore a place of public accommodation. The PGA Tour believes that the ADA was not designed or intended to apply to competitors in professional sporting events, including professional tournament golf.

"Whether carts will be provided to other competitors with permanent disabilities is a matter that will be discussed with the PGA Tour Policy Board."

Coffin announced his ruling after lawyers for Martin and the PGA Tour gave their closing arguments this morning.

Tour officials contended giving Martin a cart would not only give him an unfair advantage, but also would take away the fundamental aspect of athleticism and stamina that walking brings to top-flight tournament golf.

Martin's case generated a national debate over the rights of the disabled to compete in professional sports, and an outpouring of support for him. He was featured in a Nike "I Can" campaign and won the support of former presidential candidate Bob Dole.

In the PGA Tour's summation, its lawyer warned Coffin against allowing the strong public sympathy for Martin to cloud his judgment.

"I know, your honor, there is a substantial amount of public sympathy for Mr. Martin," lawyer William Maledon said. "I sympathize with Mr. Martin as well.

"That is not what this case is about," he said. "The right thing to do would be to decide this case based on the applicable law, not in accordance with public opinion."

Coffin had already ruled twice in Martin's favor, granting a preliminary injunction allowing him to ride a cart in the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament last December and denying the PGA Tour's motion to throw out the case last month.

Riding a cart, Martin won the Nike Tour's Lakeland Classic last month, generating an outpouring of public support.

In her closing argument, which came before Maledon's, Martin's lawyer Martha Walters argued today that the disabled golfer doesn't want special treatment, just a chance to compete with the best players in the world by riding a cart instead of walking.

"Mr. Martin just needs a ride to the tee," Walters said. "He does not need a 50-yard lead.

"Casey Martin would not be here if it meant he would be asking for anything -- anything -- like sympathy."

Pointing to Martin's atrophied, stick of leg, Walters said: "You cannot look at that leg and believe for one instant that Casey Martin would have a competitive advantage."

The NCAA made accommodation for Martin by allowing him to ride in a cart while playing for Stanford University, and the PGA Tour allows professionals to ride carts in the early round of its qualifying tournament, so there should be no problem allowing Martin to ride at golf's highest level, Walters said.

Walters, an expert in the ADA, said the PGA Tour is not the first business that felt the law would drastically change its operations.

"When Congress adopted the ADA, it decided change would have to happen," she said, adding that the tour behaves like it "does not have to follow the rules."

"Persons with disabilities will continue to be locked out of jobs and careers if we don't give them affirmative accommodation," she said.

Maledon countered that Martin's specific disability and similar circumstances in college golf have nothing to do with the way the case should be decided.

"Your honor has to focus on the specific privilege or accommodation being sought," Maledon told the judge. "If you go beyond that, I respectfully submit you commit error."

Maledon compared allowing Martin to ride a cart to moving the three-point line for some players in the NBA, which would fundamentally alter competition.