Golf: Buggy-man fights for a ticket to ride

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Is walking a vital part of the game of golf, or should Casey Martin be able to ride out his dream in a cart? Today a court in America will give its verdict on a case that could have major implications for the sport. Andy Farrell reports.

It was Mark Twain who described golf as a "good walk spoiled". That was even before the invention of the electric buggy, which have become mandatory at so many American courses that walking is virtually impossible. Except, that is, for the professional tours, where buggies are banned. For Casey Martin, golf is a good living spoiled.

Not for the lack of talent, though. Martin, 25, from Eugene, Oregon, is a former state high school champion, was on the same college team at Stanford as Tiger Woods and recently became the ninth player to win his first event on the Nike Tour.

Martin's problem is that he cannot walk, or stand, for long periods. In order to play 18 holes of golf, he needs to ride a cart.

Martin, who suffers from a degenerative circulatory disorder in his lower right leg, is suing the US PGA Tour under the Americans with Disabilities Act for the right to use a buggy in Nike and regular tour events. After four days of testimony in front of US Magistrate Tom Coffin in Eugene last week, the hearing resumes today.

Martin's decided to take action when his condition deteriorated after two years trying to walk at mini-tour events. "I was backed up against a wall," he said prior to the trial. "Either I quit golf and try something else, or try for a cart."

He was diagnosed with Klippel-Trenaunay-Webber Syndrome at six months old. The vein system is not properly developed in his lower right leg and, when under stress, bleeds into his knee. The leg is highly susceptible to breaking, and if it does, it would have to be amputated.

Giving evidence in court last week, Martin broke down in tears. "Every time I step, there's a sharp pain in my shin," he said. "It feels like my leg is going to blow up. If I could trade my leg and a cart for their good leg, I would do it anytime, anywhere."

Why Martin should not be allowed a cart is the case the PGA Tour needs to prove. Their defence rests on three points: that walking is an integral part of the game and endurance part of the challenge: that letting one player use a cart is an unfair advantage over the rest of the field; and that sporting bodies should be allowed to set the conditions for their competitions.

Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the US PGA Tour, is a shrewd political operator and has sought to contest the case in the full knowledge of the bad publicity it is generating in America. The Tour's long-used slogan "Anything's possible" has been thrown firmly back in his face by Martin's lawyers.

But Finchem knows he has the backing of other governing bodies in the game, the USGA, the Royal & Ancient and the PGA European Tour, plus some heavyweight support. Ken Venturi was in court to describe the stifling temperatures and extreme effects of dehydration he had to cope with when winning the 1964 US Open, while Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer gave evidence by videotape.

Palmer, 68, refuses to use carts on the US Senior Tour, where they are allowed, and says he will quit the game when he can no longer walk the course. "I feel if we change this rule, we will change the nature of golf on the face of the earth," he said.

Nicklaus said: "I think it looks terrible. I just don't think it's part of the game of golf. I don't think you could get off the first tee of a golf course if you had to determine who could have a golf cart and who could not."

This seems to be an area - where to draw the line - that the ruling bodies are extremely wary of. Fred Couples, whose schedule and travel is limited by an arthritic back, has already said that if Martin gets a cart, he should be next in line. But Couples added: "I don't think I deserve to use one."

The crucial point, however, is that Martin has been disabled since birth and Coffin has consistently ruled in his favour so far. He granted a temporary injunction that enabled Martin to play in the Qualifying School last December, where he missed a place on the main tour by two shots and for two events on the Nike Tour, the equivalent of Europe's Challenge.

Martin immediately gained his first professional victory at the Lakeland Classic in Florida and was signed up by Nike, whose new campaign features the slogan "I can". Or in Martin's case: "I can... with a cart."