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Jewish World Review June 4, 2001/ 14 Sivan, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

When the Supreme Court putts -- CASEY MARTIN, a disabled golfer, is a hero for our times. He's a potential champion who has the rules bent around him. If he wins a championship we're not supposed to notice that he got an advantage over his disadvantage.

He's the kid a permissive parent tells to ignore the lines when coloring because the lines get in his way. He's the pupil the teacher passes to the next grade even though he got failing grades because she doesn't want to hurt his feelings.

The Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision says Martin, who suffers from a degenerate and painful circulatory disorder that affects his right leg and makes it impossible for him to walk the 18 holes in a professional golf tournament, now has the legal right to play the PGA Tour by riding in a golf cart. Creating a level playing field suddenly means creating a playing field to help the handicapped.

Who needs the Special Olympics?

Casey Martin becomes the short basketball player who gets the height of the basket lowered when he tries to score. He's the crippled baseball player who uses an electric wheelchair to run around the bases.

"Most golfers report to the clubhouse,'' sportswriter Tom Knott wryly observes. "Martin reports to the nearest Jiffy Lube. His biggest worry is not the next shot. His biggest worry is the air pressure in his tires.''

No one wants to make fun of the golfer's illness -- and the perverse comparisons that swirl around this decision do not do that. But the seven judges who made up the majority opinion for this case are not immune to ridicule by one of their own.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, compared his colleagues to philosophers who see it as their "solemn duty'' to decide "What is Golf?'' That almost sounds Jesuitical. Soon, he suggests, a disabled Little League batter will earn four strikes.

In their reasoning, the judges put the cart before the ball. The essence of the game is "shot-making'' not walking, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote on behalf of the majority.

Although the decision is defended for its narrowness -- that it applies only to Casey Martin and that it's not easy to extend to others -- nearly everybody's worried about the next guy (or gal) who will step up and apply for a golfer's cart or the lame racer who will qualify for wheels. At what point does an aching back or a broken toe qualify?

What about a pregnant golfer? Brenda Kuehn, eight months with child, competed in this year's United States Women's Open. She told the New York Times that pregnancy is not a disability and she would play without asking for a cart. That takes care of one major category, this time. But the fact that Brenda Kuehn felt compelled to comment tells you about the new debate from behind the tee. That's too bad.

Golf is a game about rules, personal honor, even self-imposed penalties, which lend this particular sport a rigorous and ethical elegance. "Since its strict rules can be infracted in the privacy of a sand bunker or a sumac grove,'' writes John Updike,'' it tests the conscience.''

Golf is about integrity. Most amateur golfers I know do not look kindly on the use of "mulligans,'' for example, which is taking a second shot when you don't like the first one. It's a question of character. (You could ask a recent president, whose name will not be mentioned here, who often demanded mulligans. Who would deny a president?)

It's with some irony that the word handicap, a method that evens out matches between uneven players on the golf course, is, in this Supreme Court decision, extended to designate special privileges for a professional golfer with a disability. Even if Casey Martin were able to win a championship, it would be with an asterisk.

More than most sports, golf has retained its traditions. Baseball did away with its white-for-home, gray-for-the-road uniforms; the American League even permits a permanent pinch hitter for the pitcher. Basketball added excitement with three-point shots. Tennis now has tiebreaker scoring. Football, which changes its rules more often than some players change their underwear, decrees different teams for defense and offense.

Golf just hasn't changed that much. A good golfer can earn more championship money and play with improved clubs and balls, but there have been few changes in the rules of the game.

"Overall, the moral standards of society have declined in recent years,'' said Ben Hogan, one of the true legends of the sport. "But the morality of golf hasn't changed.''

Of course, he said that before the Supreme Court justices putted, overruling all that.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS