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The Golf War

While the furniture-smashers of the U.S. Men's Olympic Hockey Team were returning to vain millionairehood in the NHL, and Latrell Sprewell was explaining to his adoring public that the really important lesson in the strangling of P.J. Carlesimo is the one that coaches should learn from it, and Chicago Bear Alonzo Spellman was throwing a tantrum that tied up the cops all day, and Cuban defector/World Series MVP Livan Hernandez was trading in his yellow Ferrari for a black Mercedes because he couldn't fit his new golf clubs into the Ferrari, and Pat Bowlen was assuring everyone that, no, he won't raise Bronco ticket prices next season, and no--hell, no--this act of generosity was not a bald-faced attempt to curry favor for his new stadium plans--while all that was happening, Casey Martin rode out to the first tee.

You remember Casey. He's the golfer who got into a beef with the linen-trousered country-clubbers who rule the PGA Tour over the use of an electric cart. Martin suffers from a painful circulatory disorder called Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, which prevents him from walking the course in the manner of superbly conditioned athletes like, say, Craig Stadler. It's hard on Martin just walking a few steps to his ball, and swinging a club can be pure agony. And because his disease is cruelly unpredictable, there may come a time when one of his legs has to be amputated.

Don't expect Casey to win the U.S. Open on one wheel.
And don't expect professional golf to be strewing his cart path with roses. The petty dictators of the tour--the same people who stood idly by in their blazers, sipping bourbon on the rocks while the bigots down at Augusta National and three dozen other outposts of white supremacy kept black players out of their clubhouses for sixty years--grinned and bore it when a federal judge ruled in Martin's favor last month. He said that under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the golfer had a right to powered transport around the links in pursuit of his career goals.

Golf's potentates grinned, but they are not happy. For their part, they tell us that walking has been essential to golf for centuries--presumably the same centuries when the game was indestructibly Caucasian. If you can't walk, they say, get the hell off the PGA Tour--or the lesser Nike Tour, where Casey currently plies his trade. Of course, if you're a Senior Tour member, hop aboard the cart if you like.

Otherwise, the country-clubbers say, carts give the riders an unfair advantage over walkers--although there is absolutely no evidence to support the notion that riders score better than walkers. Of course, you might want to consider the plight of delicate specimens like John Daly and Greg Norman, who always look (have you noticed?) like they've just gone twelve rounds with Muhammad Ali every time they manage to drag their weary carcasses onto the eighteenth green. Weightlifting? Forget about it. Ice hockey? No comparison. There's nothing that tuckers a guy out quite like a four-hour stroll in the sunshine.

The PGA types also insist that the authors of the ADA did not have people like Casey Martin in mind when they framed its provisions. The anti-Martinites say the act allows the disabled to get to work and to enter public buildings. It implies nothing, they are saying, about helping a man do a job he loves that would be impossible without a little help. What they're not saying is this, but you can bet they're thinking it: The ADA is not designed to let an unsightly cripple stain professional golf's image as the most mannerly, most rule-conscious, the best-looking gentleman's game in all of WASPdom.

Before you know it, there won't be any rules left in this world.
Before you know it, a fellow who really should be caddying for the white players will win the Masters by twelve strokes. The nightmarish Sprewell will run onto the court with a switchblade tucked into his shorts. Dennis Rodman will be playing in the nude. And interior linemen who ordinarily just pee their pants when all that morning coffee gets to roiling the bladder will be demanding bathroom breaks after every first down.

Anarchy, that's what the Casey Martin case means. Anarchy. Let this dangerous radical cruise around Baltusrol and Pebble Beach in his cart, and before you know it, women will be demanding to play golf at the country clubs to which they belong at times other than Tuesday morning between eight and eleven. Now that Martin has his way, Hispanic immigrants who should be busy picking peaches on their day off will be slipping down to the thrift shop to buy sets of used golf clubs. And that's just the beginning. Now that Casey is motorized, how long can it be before visually disturbing geeks and gimps of every description are cluttering up the driving ranges and the men's grills?

How long until all the old, honored standards have been thrown to the winds?
The truth of the matter is that golf doesn't like change. Any kind of change. The unspoken subtext of the Casey Martin affair is that one Tiger Woods is fine (just look at the box office!) but that three of them would make everybody, you know, uncomfortable. The subtext is that if Michael Jordan wants to play professional golf when his hoop days are done, that will be just fine, but God forbid that Mr. Sprewell is also working on his short game. The subtext is that one Casey Martin (now that he's won his case) can be turned into a public-relations bonus demonstrating the new democracy of a stodgy old game. But a dozen Casey Martins will be bad for golf's image.

Make no mistake. These men know a hazard when they see one.

Okay, let's get our actors straight. Gene Hackman is currently appearing in Twilight as an aging Hollywood idol dying of cancer. It's a guy with a name straight out of a boys' sports novel--Homer Drew--who's inherited the role of a basketball coach from a tiny school in Indiana whose team keeps slaying giants.

But not even the scriptwriters of Hoosiers would have dared to lay the schmaltz on this thick. On Friday, Homer Drew's unheralded Valparaiso Crusaders, champions of the equally obscure Mid-Continent Conference, knocked off favored Mississippi on a three-point buzzer beater (shot by the coach's son Bryce, no less). Then, on Sunday, the smallest school (enrollment: 3,500) in the NCAA Tournament survived a six-minute scoring drought and a 15-0 run by Florida State (enrollment: 30,000) to beat the Seminoles 83-77 and advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Wait. There's more. Valpo's next opponent, in the Midwest Regional Semifinals, is upstart Rhode Island, which knocked top-seeded Kansas out of its dancing shoes Sunday. The thirteenth-seeded Crusaders will meet the Rams Friday in St. Louis. Guess what: The son of Rhode Island head coach Jim Harrick, Jim Harrick Jr., is a Valparaiso assistant.

Leo Tolstoy himself couldn't have cooked up more intriguing family complications. Or more bewildering player names. The starting front line for Valpo features Zoran Viskovic and Antanas Vilcinskas--"V for Victory" all the way around--and if you're a play-by-play person who can pronounce their handles three times in a row without stumbling, you probably deserve an Emmy Award. As long as you're not that other V, Dick Vitale.

All right, all right. Big boys North Carolina, Duke, Maryland, Arizona and Kentucky are still in this thing, and one of those traditional powerhouses will probably be the last one dancing. But even those of us who usually regard basketball as a collection of freakish pituitary accidents get caught up in March Madness when stuff like this happens.

If a guy named Homer Drew, from a wide spot in the road, doesn't deserve to reach the Final Four, who does? How about son Bryce, who launched the crucial three against Ole Miss? Or Jim Harrick Jr., who will be coaching against his dad on Friday? I don't know about you, but I'm hoping Viskovic feeds Vilcinskas the rock with seconds left in a tie game Friday and he sinks the thing.

With that, the most engaging college-hoops drama of the year could get even better. In the other Midwest Regional semifinal, you see, Stanford plays Purdue. Purdue. Huge Big Ten school. Right up the road a piece from tiny Valparaiso, Indiana.

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