The PGA Tour vs. Casey Martin

This paper analyzes the public relations aspects of the case – The PGA Tour vs. Casey Martin. Casey Martin sued the PGA Tour over the right to use a riding cart during PGA events. The recent court rulings are discussed as well as the current appeal by the PGA Tour to the Supreme Court. Also examined are the reasons why Casey Martin took the PGA to court. Opinions of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and PGA Tour Commissioner, Tim Finchem are presented. The positive and negative public relations issues of three famous Stanford golfers are discussed: Casey Martin, Tiger Woods, and Notah Begay III. Finally, the paper concludes by explaining how the PGA Tour and Casey Martin should resolve the case.

The popularity of golf in the United States and the world is at an all time high. Tiger Woods is a household name. He is reaching the same popularity level across the globe that only Michael Jordan has. New golf courses are popping up everywhere. Young boys and girls are now playing golf instead of the other major sports such as baseball, softball, basketball, and football. It is no longer frowned upon to focus on golf in high school. During this boom in popularity, a major public relations issue involving the tradition of the game has come to the forefront. In fact, it is going all the way to the Supreme Court. The issue is the ability to ride a cart in professional PGA tour events. The player in the midst of this huge controversy is Casey Martin.

Casey Martin – History of the Case

Casey Martin was born June 2, 1972, in Eugene, Oregon with a birth defect. The birth defect in his right leg is known as Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome. In order to walk, Casey has to wear a strong support stocking to keep the swelling down. The defect is a congenital circulatory condition in his lower right leg. His right leg is two sizes too small and his doctors tell him there is a good chance he will lose the leg in the near future. His orthopedist, Dr. Don Jones said, “He has a grossly abnormal vascular system of the lower extremity and, with that, erosion of the bone and chronic pain.”(Reilly, 1998) The doctor is still hopeful that they can find something that will make Martin more comfortable and prolong the life of the leg. Martin prefers not  to talk about the pain, but admits it is a day to day thing. He continues to encounter sharp pains, aches, and throbs in the leg. Anything could and may happen that could force his balsa tibia to snap. If this happens, his leg will have to come off. “I only have so many steps left in it,” Martin says.(Charles, 1998) This is why Casey Martin has been in a battle with the PGA Tour since 1997. He knows his pro career could come to a grinding halt any day. If he has to walk the course instead of ride, the end could come very quickly.

The debate started in December of 1997. Casey wanted to use a cart in the PGA Tour qualifier in Haines City, Florida. If he finished as one of the top 38 golfers, he would earn his tour card for the coming year. He was granted a temporary injunction that allowed him to ride a cart in the event. Unfortunately, his six round score of 425 was not good enough for him to finish in the top 38.
In 1998, the federal district courts again ruled in favor of Martin. The PGA was ordered to allow him to use a golf cart in its championship tournaments, in contradiction to its existing rules. The PGA Tour appealed that decision as well. In March of 2000, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires the tour to make an exception to its walking only rule.(Curtis, 2000) The tour must allow Martin to use a motorized cart during competition. After the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Martin, the PGA Tour decided to take the issue to the Supreme Court.

The PGA Tour applied on May 15, 2000 for the U.S. Supreme Court to extend its deadline for its appeal of the lower court decision. The decision has allowed Casey Martin for the time to use a golf cart during tour events. When representatives of the PGA asked for the extension, they went to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who pushed back the deadline by thirty days to July 5, 2000. This extension gave the tour extra time to ready its argument in the event the Supreme Court would hear the Martin case. It seems ironic that the PGA Tour chose Justice O’Connor to extend the deadline. O’Connor is an avid golfer and a member of the exclusive Chevy Chase Maryland Club. One of the PGA Tour’s lawyers, Richard Taranto, is also a former clerk of O’Connor.(Reilly, 2000) At the current date, the fate of Casey Martin is still sitting in the hands of the Supreme Court.

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Casey Martin’s previous cases and current appeal fall under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title III prohibits discrimination in “public accommodations,” a term which covers a wide range of facilities, institutions, and organized activities.(Silvers and Wasserman, 2000) One of the main points that was brought up in lower court rulings and will continue to be is the walking rule that the PGA Tour has in place. The PGA rules clearly state that golfers are to walk the course. Many players regard that as a huge challenge in hot and humid conditions, as well as hilly terrain. But, walking has no other part in the competition. Golfers do not receive lower scores for faster walking, and no minimum pace or time is specified. Although, there are occasions where marshals ask players to pick up the pace. In 1998, the federal district courts addressed this important issue under Title III, “Was the proposed exception a reasonable modification, or would it fundamentally alter the nature of the activity in question?”

In enacting the ADA, Congress found that people with disabilities had been denied “the opportunity to compete on an equal basis” by pervasive discrimination, involving not only “outright intentional exclusion,” but also “architectural, transportation, and communication barriers.”(Silvers and Wasserman, 2000a) The Congress also found exclusionary qualification standards and criteria and the failure to make modifications to existing facilities and practices. The ADA treats discrimination against people with disabilities as a sin of omission and failure to remove barriers and make reasonable changes. The interpretation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act by the Supreme Court will play a major role in this landmark case.

The Stance of the PGA Tour

The PGA Tour has taken some hits to its public image during this three-year ordeal, but has not sustained any fatal blows. In 1997, the public outcry was enormous against the tour. Many saw the PGA Tour as being elitist and unsympathetic to a person born with a handicap. Many media and fans followed Casey Martin during his first PGA event in January of 2000, but interest in him and the case have steadily diminished. The main reason seems to be, out of sight, out of mind. Martin’s best finish this year is seventeenth. Therefore, he hasn’t been on television much at all on Saturday or Sunday since he hasn’t been in contention. That appears to be fine with the PGA Tour. The less Casey is out of the public eye, the better for the PGA. The PGA Tour is just hoping the Supreme Court rules in their favor later this year.

The PGA has taken a firm stance on this issue. Tim Finchem, PGA Tour commissioner, says there are two main issues in the Casey Martin case. First, “The Tour should always have the ability to make its own rules and regulations. Second, walking is an integral part of the game and shouldn’t be lost.”(Strange, 1998)  All of today’s top players seem to be in agreement with their commissioner. Even Tiger Woods, who considers Casey Martin a good friend, doesn’t believe Martin should ride a cart. Woods and Martin were on the same team at Stanford University. Tiger’s opinions about Martin haven’t grabbed much attention and nothing seems to be getting in the way of Tiger’s Jordan-like popularity.

Two of the most famous names in golf are also very adamant on this issue. Arnold Palmer has given a deposition on behalf of the PGA saying that using a cart could, under some circumstances, provide a competitive advantage. Yet, Arnie rode a cart in one event on the Senior Tour last year. Jack Nicklaus has also told the PGA Tour that he is willing to speak on its behalf if it would help the cause. Other top golfers seem to avoid the topic at all costs. Davis Love III has made the words “no comment” an art form in his press conferences. Tiger Woods, Nicklaus, and Palmer appear to have images that are untouchable, but the second tier players have more to lose as far as their image and potential endorsements. The second tier players often make as much or more in endorsements than they do from playing the tour itself.

One of the PGA Tour’s most outspoken players is Curtis Strange, who is also a commentator for ABC Sports. Strange contends that we all must rule with our heads in this case and not our hearts. His main contention, like many others, is that golf is a walking game. By allowing Casey to ride a cart would be destroying the traditions of the game. He contends that fitness and stamina are an important part of the game of golf. Strange’s main assertion is that by making an exception to the tour’s walking-only rule, it would change the nature of the game and under certain conditions, give Martin an unfair advantage over the rest of the field.(Strange, 1998) Strange does admit, though, that one of the problems with the tour’s defense is that players on the Senior PGA Tour are allowed to ride carts. Players are also allowed to ride for the first two stages of the qualifying tournament for the PGA Tour.

With all this said, the PGA’s policy and stance are not consistent. If walking is essential to the tradition of the game, why are carts allowed on the Senior PGA Tour and the Q school? Even at one of the tour’s most famous courses, the TPC at Sawgrass, golfers are required to ride golf carts. In today’s golf world, many golfers have never walked 18 holes in their life. If walking is such a tradition, why do club professionals not push this aspect of the game more? Carts speed up the game tremendously, and therefore provide more revenue for the courses. The decision to use carts on public and private courses is money driven, pure and simple.

The Stanford Connection

Let’s look at three of the most famous golfers that Stanford has produced, and their public relations impact on the game of golf. Casey Martin and Notah Begay III redshirted during their junior year in 1992-1993, primarily to get the bulk of their schoolwork out of the way, so they would have more time for golf as fifth-year seniors. But their main motivation was getting to play with Tiger Woods if he enrolled in the fall of 1994. The year before Woods arrived, the Stanford team had their best year ever by winning the NCAA Championship. The first year Tiger was there, Stanford didn’t win the championship, but defeated all its opponents during the regular season. According to Coach Wally Goodwin, the Stanford team beat Oklahoma State by 50 strokes during one tournament, but ended up losing the championship to Oklahoma State in a playoff.

Notah Begay III, currently has a very positive image, but has created both good and bad publicity for the tour over the last two years. Notah is the only Native American on tour in the United States, and has been featured in numerous television and magazine articles. On November 12, 1999, he was even honored in his hometown of Albuquerque, with Notah Begay day.(Siderowf, 2000) Notah has been very instrumental in promoting the game of golf to the Native American community. Recently, community leaders and members of neighboring tribes gathered at the Landera Golf Course for golf, prayers, and a presentation for a $20,000 grant from the United States Golf Association. The grant will be used for the Canocito Band of the Navajos for their junior golf program. Begay is also national spokesman for the Native American Sports Council Sport Warrior Program.

For all the positive things that Notah has accomplished, there are also a couple of unforgettable moments. On January 19, 2000, Begay was arrested for his second DWI offense. However, Notah turned a negative point in his life into a positive one. Unlike many athletes today, he accepted total responsibility for his actions. Begay is even more popular with golf fans now, than before the DWI. He spoke to kids at a junior clinic, and told them he was going to jail. He told them that he made a bad decision and must take responsibility for it. Begay had to spend seven days in jail and pay a $1,000 fine. This standup guy mentality has done more to increase his good public image than his tournament wins. Although, the wins definitely help keep him in the spotlight. In 1999, he had two wins that totaled $1.255 million in earnings. In 2000 thus far, he also has two wins and has $1.649 million in earnings.

Another member of that Stanford Connection is Tiger Woods. Tiger’s unparalleled success over the last two years has forged golf into unprecedented growth. More children, women, and minorities are playing the game now than ever before. Television ratings are at an all time high. Talk about positive public relations and image, Tiger has pushed golf into unchartered popularity. Country club memberships are at an all time high. Woods has opened the door for other golfers in terms of endorsements and bigger purses for PGA Tour events. How has Tiger accomplished this public relations feat? Simple, he is winning and continues to win. In 1999, Woods had eight wins that totaled $6.6 million. In 2000 thus far, he has won nine times and has accumulated over $7 million in earnings.

Casey Martin, the third piece of the Stanford Connection, has not had the success of his college teammates. In 1999 on the Nike Tour, he entered 24 events. Martin made the cut only 13 times, and had nine Top 25 finishes. But, due to the small Nike Tour purses compared to the PGA Tour, he only earned $122,742 for his efforts. In 2000, his first year on the PGA Tour, he has entered 20 events and made the cut 11 times, with only one Top 25 finish. He has earned $117,354 so far this year. Due to Martin’s poor performance on the tour thus far, the interest from the media and fans has diminished. Casey wants to be known more for his golf game than his disability, but to accomplish this he must take his game to the next level. Winning is the best public relations tool he has.

The fate of Casey Martin’s future now rests in the hands of the Supreme Court. If the court rules against him, Martin will probably have to forfeit his dream as a professional golfer. He would more than likely end up being a club pro somewhere and that would be a shame. Casey Martin was born with a birth defect and the PGA should not punish him for that. He is simply trying to follow his dream. Any day that dream could end if he steps wrong into a hole or inadvertently damages his leg. The fibia bone in his right leg is that brittle.

The PGA Tour is on an all-time high in popularity. Whatever the court decides, the PGA Tour will continue to flourish. The PGA should drop the suit right now, but it won’t. Jack Nicklaus said the game wouldn’t be the same if Casey wins. But, Jack, wouldn’t that be a change for the better? Casey was born with a handicap. If this were Jack’s son Gary, who is a PGA Tour pro, I wonder if Jack would feel the same way. The PGA Tour and its players need to reevaluate their hearts and their positions on this issue. Casey Martin is a courageous young man, and his success could only enhance and improve the image of the game of golf.

References

Reilly, Rick. (1998, February 9). Give Casey Martin a lift. Sports Illustrated, No. 5(88), 140.

Charles, Nick. (1998, February 9). Fairway or no way. People Weekly, No. 5 (49) 48-49.

Curtis, Ted.(2000, May). Ticket to Ride? ABA Journal, 24.

Reilly, Rick.(2000, June 12). Setting a Sandy Trap? Sports Illustrated, No. 24(92), 28.

Strange, Curtis. (1998, March). Protecting the game. Golf Magazine, 32-33.

Cunneff, Tom. (1998, September). Great golf 101. Golf Magazine, No. 9 (40), 86-87.

Siderowf, Topsy. (2000, April). A bump in the road. Golf Digest, No. 4(51) p. 55.

 

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