An oft-told story about Ben Hogan, generally narrated in a tone of awe, involves the final round of a closely contested tournament. Hogan was preparing to hit his second shot toward a hole on the back nine, when his golf ball did one of those mysterious and vexing things that golf balls sometimes do: It moved.
It wasn’t Hogan’s fault. He had not inadvertently hit the ball. It just moved by force of gravity or lie or breeze, and it moved so infinitesimally that only Hogan noticed it.
Nonetheless, Hogan gave himself a one-stroke penalty. Tournament officials told him that, given the microscopic movement of the ball, they would certainly not insist on such an unwaveringly strict interpretation of the rules. They practically begged him not to take a penalty. But Hogan insisted. It was the gentlemanly thing to do, he said. He went on to lose the tournament by that single stroke.
As it turns out, that episode illuminates both sides of the debate in professional golf that still roils around the case of Casey Martin, the young golfer with the degenerative condition that prevents him from walking the course, as PGA Tour rules require. On the one hand, as Hogan observed, a gentleman is obliged to follow the rules, no matter how inconvenient he may find them. On the other, for a sport that prides itself in upholding gentlemanly behavior, professional golf behaved toward Martin in a singularly swinish way.
Officially, the Supreme Court settled the issue last week, with a 7-2 ruling that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) means the PGA must accommodate Martin’s condition by allowing him to use a cart in tournament play. But the decision did little to stop the bitter yammering about either the rightness of the verdict or its possible repercussions.
Hogan himself would likely have been of two minds about this. Had he stood in Martin’s cleats, it’s hard to believe that he would have sued to force a waiver of the rules that favored him. (In fact, after the near fatal car wreck late in Hogan’s career that shattered both his legs, it was said he struggled mightily and painfully to walk 18 holes.) But it’s equally difficult to imagine that, had Hogan presided over the PGA, he would have denied Martin something so inconsequentialand don’t kid yourself that it’s notas a golf cart.
In the end, we got the right outcome, the wrong reasoning, and a lot of foolishness along the way. Which perhaps is only fair, considering that justice, being bli-, er, visually challenged, itself might qualify for some fudge room under the ADA.
Even if you’re happy about the high court’s position, you may fairly wonder about the scenic route their logic took to arrive there. Rube Goldberg would have emitted a respectful whistle at the roundabout engineering through which the Martin decision was contrived.
To apply the Disabilities Act to this case, the seven-justice majority had to determine that Martin and other golfers represent either the PGA Tour’s customerswhich is a little like saying that the contending parties were the Supreme Court’s “customers”or that they function as the Tour’s employees, a concept that is only slightly less whomperjawed. (“None of the above” apparently was not an option.)
The Court ruled that the ADA’s guidelines apply because Martin has made golf his professionand because the act covers Americans whose disability would hinder them from carrying out a “major life activity,” which specifically includes working. Never mind that golfers on the PGA Tour are voluntary participants, and the Supreme Court has already ruled, in the case of the Boy Scouts, that voluntary organizations have wide power to set their own membership qualifications. Forget also for a moment that this Court, which tends to look upon federal intervention in any new area like some leprous space mutant, found itself making official pronouncements about the essential nature and meaning of golf.
But if the Court’s minority had better arguments, the majority had better principles. The PGA and all the golfers who lined up against Casey Martin may have been truer to the rules of the game, but they were utterly disloyal to its spirit.
You’d need to bring a sack lunch and toil all day to muster up a tear of sympathy for this heartless crew of pirates. The guy they were seeking to keep out of the country club is, for all practical purposes, crippled. His right leg is continually wracked with pain. To walk any appreciable distance is not only excruciating for him but dangerous. Probably sooner rather than later, his degenerative circulatory disorder, Klippel-Trenauny-Weber Syndrome, will force the amputation of his right leg below the knee.
Were Martin a serious threat to take prize money out of the pockets of other pros, their motive for excluding him, however nakedly self-interested, would at least be understandable. But as his leg has deteriorated since 1997, he has increasingly struggled just to make tournament cuts. After last year, he lost his PGA Tour card. So far this year, he has earned just $6,000 playing golf.
Granted, as my learned friend and legal counsel, S.R. Pirtle Esq., explains it to me, “Bad facts make bad law.” Even a story as sad as Martin’s by itself does not justify twisting inconvenient legalities like a pretzel.
Of course, it never had to be left for the law to decide, had the PGA acted with the grace and class that it loudly purports to uphold as traditions of the game.
To put this all in perspective, imagine how quickly the PGA would have bestowed an exception to the walk-don’t-ride rule had the disabled golfer been Tiger Woods or even David Duval. As one wag suggested, commissioner Tim Finchem would have offered to chauffeur Woods himself, in an air-conditioned cart equipped with a whirlpool tub for Tiger’s bum leg.
Imagine how the story would have played had the Tour granted a one-time exception to Martin to allow for his singular circumstancesessentially, what the Supreme Court did. The media would have given us uplifting stories about the courageous golfer who continued to compete gamely in spite of his doomed legand about the sportsmanlike gentlemen who set aside their strict rules for the sake of a stricken colleague.
Now it’s only Martin who looks dogged and heroic. The PGA players look like a pack of gutless weasels who howl, ludicrously, that allowing Martin to ride while they walk puts them at a disadvantage against a golfer who almost literally is on his last leg. Maybe it’s just me, but any Tour-worthy golfer who whines that walking the course leaves him too sapped to beat a crippled guy needs more help than any rule could provide.
To hear these guys, you’d almost think a phalanx of one-legged, one-armed, sightless golfers capable of shooting straight 68s was queued up at the PGA clubhouse. Or that letting Martin ride will change the essence of the sport. Please. If that were true, why not excommunicate Arnold Palmer, whose embrace of an outlaw club is a genuine threat to golf’s integrity?
If the PGA suddenly faces a rash of suits from golfers with bad backsdoubtful as that may be, given the Court’s very narrow rulingit will have nobody to blame but itself. Or maybe it could blame its lawyers, who doubtless counseled the PGA that voluntarily doing the right thing by Martin would leave the door cracked for fresh waves of complainants with litigious, lawyerly mind-sets.
Given the astounding vastness and contentiousness of our lawyer population, the PGA’s hard line may have been only prudent. Still, the Martin case has settled one thing: Pro golf is not run by gentlemen like Ben Hogan, but by money, greed, and lawyers. And it operates with a far more serious handicap than Casey Martin will ever know.