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In denying John Daly a cart, the R&A misses the point

July 08, 2019
FARMINGDALE, NEW YORK - MAY 16: John Daly of the United States drives a cart on the 11th hole during the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 16, 2019 in Farmingdale, New York. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

On Saturday, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club officially turned down John Daly’s request for a cart—or as it is called in Europe, a "buggy"—at next week’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush.

The R&A’s announcement was filled with all sorts of eloquent language about how much respect it has for Daly, who won the 1995 Open at St. Andrews.

“We fully sympathize with John as he deals with this serious long-term condition,” the R&A’s statement said.

But the answer was no.

Daly took to social media soon after. Like the R&A, he was polite, saying he was certain the R&A had good intentions before adding, “But I could not differ more with their conclusions.”

Noting that the PGA of America had granted him a cart in May to play in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, he added, “Different continents, different laws?”

Leave it to Daly to cut to the heart of the matter—perhaps without knowing that he’d done just that. The answer to his question is yes—different continents, different laws.

In the United States, the Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in "Martin v. PGA Tour" has created legal precedent under the Americans with Disabilities Act for a golfer with a disability to use a cart in competitions that otherwise bans carts.

Casey Martin, who is afflicted with Klippel-Trenanauy-Weber Syndrome—a birth defect in his right leg that makes walking very difficult—successfully sued the PGA Tour for the right to use a golf cart in tour events, whether on the PGA Tour or the (then) Nike Tour. The tour already allowed carts on the over-50 tour and, in the past, had allowed them in PGA Tour qualifying school—although it had changed the rule to ban them in the late 1990s.

Martin first became a story early in 1998 when he won the Lakeland Classic on the Nike Tour. One month later, a Federal Court judge issued an injunction allowing Martin to continue using a cart on the Nike Tour.

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Among those who testified against Martin during that trial were Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Ken Venturi. Nicklaus was honest enough to admit that he thought that carts would look very bad on television and would damage the tour’s image. The tour wasn’t that honest, refusing to admit that image was one of its concerns.

What made Martin’s story so compelling—and controversial—was that he clearly could play. He had been a teammate of Tiger Woods on an NCAA championship team at Stanford and was also an academic All-American there. His win in Lakeland made it clear he was good enough to make it to the PGA Tour.

I vividly remember being at Torrey Pines the week of the trial and sitting in the locker room during a rain delay—it was an El Nino year—listening as players debated the issue. Most agreed with the tour’s position that walking was an integral part of the game.

Perhaps the most adamant in that group was Fred Couples, who has dealt with back issues most of his career. “If he gets a cart, why can’t I go to the tour and say my back hurts, I need a cart?” Couples asked. “Where do you draw the line?”

Payne Stewart had the answer. “This isn’t an injury, Freddy,” he said quietly. “This is a birth defect. It’s a disease, and it’s only going to get worse. The kid may lose that leg someday. Everyone gets injured out here at some point. Very few people have diseases like this one.”

Later, as the argument raged on, I stood in the corner of the locker room with Stewart. “They should give the kid a cart,” he said. “They’re worried about what it will look like for carts to be on the golf course. What are we talking, one, two carts? Maybe? They should be worried about looking completely heartless, because I think that’s the way people perceive it.”

The tour fought Martin to the Supreme Court. In 2001, the court ruled 7-2 in Martin’s favor that the ADA gave him the right to play in a cart. It saw the case almost exactly as Stewart had: If you’re injured, you don’t qualify for a cart. If you have a certifiable medical condition, you qualify.

By then, Martin had finished 14th on what had become the Tour money list in 1999 and had qualified for the tour. He had played in 2000 with nary a complaint from anyone, although he failed to keep his card and was back on the by the time the ruling came down.

“What bothers me is the notion that some guys think it gives me an advantage to play in the cart,” he said one day in Tucson in 2000, when he ended up having his best finish (T-17). “The cart means I have a chance to compete, that’s all. Walking from the cart to greens and tees wears my leg out. Climbing out of a bunker is an adventure. Sometimes I fall. I’m not complaining. I’m just telling you what it’s really like.”

He wasn’t complaining. I had asked the question.

In the 18 years since the court ruled for Martin, there have been very few cases of carts being used on tour. Erik Compton used one for one week in October of 2009 after his second heart transplant. Scott Verplank, who is a diabetic and experiences constant pain in his feet when walking, was given a cart by the USGA for the 2017 U.S. Senior Open. By then, Verplank was playing the PGA Tour Champions Tour, where anyone can use a cart because the tour apparently concedes that age is a medical condition.

Martin, now the golf coach at Oregon, qualified for the 2012 U.S. Open and was allowed to use a cart—as in 1998, when he finished T-23.

If you watch the over-50 tour on television, you rarely see the players climbing into carts. There’s no doubt the tour "suggests" to its TV partners that it avoid shots of players riding in carts.

Image is everything.

Which brings us back to Daly.

Perhaps the best way to sum up his roller coaster of a life is with a simple golf statistic: He’s the only player to win two majors who was eligible to play in the Ryder Cup but has never done so.

He’s 53 now and has osteoarthritis in his right knee, a painful degenerative condition that makes walking difficult for him. He was also diagnosed as a diabetic last fall. There’s no doubt his weight, even though he has lost almost 30 pounds in the past year, doesn’t help the condition in his knee. There are also those who would argue that his lifestyle through the years has contributed to his knee problems and the diabetes.

Certainly he doesn’t present the image one might want to see in an athlete taking part in a major championship with a cigarette stuck in his lips, Diet Cokes all over his golf cart and the very loud pants he wears in a sponsorship deal.

But all of that is irrelevant. If a smoker develops lung cancer, you can say it was their fault, but does that mean you don’t sympathize? Do you tell them, "Hey, you did this to yourself, deal with it"?

Of course not. Daly’s condition isn’t nearly as serious, but he has been certified by the ADA as having a legitimate medical condition that makes walking difficult. He’s not injured; he has a medical condition. Like Martin, like Compton, like Verplank.

The USGA turned down his request to use a cart to try to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Senior Open, using a rather shaky loophole, saying he hadn’t filled out the two dozen pages of medical forms it requires. Rather than take them to court—where he would almost certainly win based on the Supreme Court ruling—Daly said he’d never play another USGA event again. The USGA, no doubt, was relieved.

Daly did fill out the required forms this spring and was granted a cart to play in the PGA Championship. Once again, many players, failed to understand why he was given the cart.

“I won the U.S. Open walking on a broken leg,” Tiger Woods said when asked about Daly.

That’s right. The fracture in his leg and the torn ACL he later had surgery to repair were INJURIES.

The R&A was able to turn Daly down because Supreme Court rulings don’t apply in Great Britain. It had the right to say no. There is, however, a difference between having the right to do something and doing what’s right.