The issue of whether disabled golfer Casey Martin should be allowed to use a golf cart in tournament play has captured the nation's imagination for weeks, but the talk that really matters begins at 1:30 p.m. on Monday at the U.S. District Court here, where Casey Martin v. PGA Tour Inc. goes to trial.

The 25-year-old Stanford University graduate was born with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome in his right leg, a circulatory disorder that hinders his ability to walk. Martin wants to use a golf cart and sued the PGA Tour under a provision of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act to force the tour to lift its long-standing prohibition of the use of carts.

The PGA Tour says that walking is as fundamental to golf as shooting is to basketball and that Martin should abide by the rules like the rest of the 180 or so professional golfers on the tour.

"To afford one player a competitive advantage over the rest of the field is neither fair nor wise," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement, "and it is inconsistent with the fundamental aspect of the sport -- that the playing field be level for all competitors."

There was no sign of a settlement tonight. Tour officials have heard the public criticism of their stance, and some players aren't sure the position will hold up in the court or with the public.

"I think we're going to lose," golfer Davis Love III told the Los Angeles Times last week. Still, PGA Tour officials have continued to fight the matter in court because the tour wants to be able to set its own rules, and many members want the no-cart rule maintained. In a poll of players at the season's first tournament, 24 players said the rules should not be changed for Martin, five said the rule should be changed and nine were undecided.

"As bad as it's going to sound, I would say no," golfer Tommy Tolles said. "Even though golf may not require the most athletic of people, there still has to be some athletic ability involved in the game. It's a bad thing that someone has a disability that kind of eliminates them from playing, but there has to be a point where somebody draws the line and says, Disability or no disability, no carts.' "

The non-jury trial before Federal Magistrate Thomas Coffin is expected to last four days, with testimony from about 24 witnesses. The PGA Tour is expected to use videotaped depositions from golf legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, who have expressed empathy with Martin but do not want the rules to be changed. Martin's college coaches and medical experts will testify and Martin's lawyers have prepared a videotape showing his leg.

Martin's lawyers, led by William Wiswall and ADA expert Martha Walters, will argue that even if he were allowed to use a cart, their client's condition places him at a competitive disadvantage. Wiswall also will dispute the Tour's contention that walking is basic to the game.

"The game of golf is composed of a good grip, a good stance, a good backswing and a good acceleration hitting through the ball," Wiswall said.

Wiswall's argument is helped by the fact that the Senior PGA Tour allows its players -- all of whom are at least 50 years old -- to use carts. Critics of the PGA Tour also say that the argument for allowing the tour to make its own rules was used to exclude minorities from the game for decades.

The PGA Tour's defense will be led by William Maledon of Phoenix. His strategy is to show that walking has been part of golf for 400 years and that changing the rule to accommodate one golfer will subject the organization to a flood of special requests.

"It becomes very difficult to administer," PGA Tour spokesman John Morris said. "What we're trying to do is keep the playing field even. Jose Maria Olazabal missed two years with a bone condition in his feet. What do you tell him when he wants a cart?"

Public interest in the case is extraordinarily high, and goes beyond the 25 million golfers in the United States. The Martin case marks the first time that the ADA, which has made its mark in the worlds of public transportation, architecture and the workplace, is being applied to professional sports competition.

"This case could have a similar impact on society's view of disability law as Anita Hill's charges had on sexual harassment," said Gary Phelan, a lawyer and ADA expert from New Haven, Conn. "A lot of people are talking about this who never picked a golf club."

The PGA Tour already has lost critical early decisions. When the tour would not allow him to use a cart, Martin filed suit last November to force a lifting of the no-cart rule. Coffin, who will preside over the trial, issued a preliminary injunction at that time forcing the tour to provide Martin with a cart for Nike Tour or PGA Tour events. He subsequently won the Lakeland (Fla.) Classic last month on the Nike Tour, which is one step below the PGA Tour but administered by the same organization.

Martin, who lives in Eugene, got more good news last week, when Coffin ruled that the tour is a public event, and thus subject to ADA rules. The tour had filed for a dismissal on grounds that its players are a private club not subject to the ADA.

Martin appeared last week in Washington with the ADA's two authors, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole. Nike Inc. has signed Martin to a two-year deal to wear shoes, shirts and accessories beginning next month at a Nike event in Austin. Martin also is appearing in Nike's television ad campaign entitled "I Can."

"Win, lose or draw -- and I think we're going to lose the first round -- if we lose and Casey rides a cart, it's going to set the game back," said golfer Mark O'Meara, a member of the PGA Tour's Public Policy Committee. And with public sentiment clearly on Martin's side, "it's a no-win situation," said O'Meara. CAPTION: Casey Martin is suing for the use of a golf cart. CAPTION: Casey Martin, who has a circulatory disorder in his right leg that hinders his walking, is suing the PGA Tour under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.