Of all the characters in golf, it has to be John Daly with osteoarthritis in his right knee, doesn’t it? It has to be John Daly who will be scooting around Bethpage Black — hilly, long, torturous Bethpage Black — in a cart during a major championship. You half-expect the smokes to be on the dash and the cooler to be fully loaded.
The optics just aren’t great: Golf’s most gargantuan and garish personality, 53 and with a belly that might prevent him from seeing the knee that no longer has its meniscus, rolling alongside his walking competitors at the PGA Championship. Daly, ranked 1,836th in the world, probably won’t be a factor at the year’s second major. But it’s hard to think the body he has abused so much over the years won’t be helped by riding in a cart.
And then you listen to Casey Martin, pro golf’s most famous cart rider.
“It seems like the PGA of America handled this correctly,” Martin said by phone.
And then you learn a little about osteoarthritis, which Beth Jonas, the chief of the division of rheumatology, allergy and immunology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, calls “probably one of the number one causes of disability among Americans.”
Come to find out that being overweight might be — might be — a contributing factor, but even so it’s one in a laundry list that includes, more importantly, age and previous injuries. “Nobody knows exactly why it happens,” Jonas said.
And then you consider that providing a cart isn’t just the whim of a governing body but is, in fact, guided by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“You have to prove you have a disability to get a cart,” said Lisa Masteralexis, who heads the sports management program at the University of Massachusetts. “It’s not something you can just walk in and get. There are significant barriers and hurdles.”
Yet Vijay Singh is 56, and he will walk this week. Davis Love III is 55, and he will walk. John Daly is 53, and he will ride.
It just seems . . . off.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first: Arguing that John Daly riding in a golf cart during the PGA Championship is something other than a first-world problem is ridiculous. There is no more self-important, self-involved sport than golf, an orbit in which the shape of the grooves in a clubhead or the manner in which a putter is held can be argued about over the shrimp cocktail, through the filet mignon and past the cigar and port on the porch. This is neither life nor death nor anything close.
But it is interesting. It’s interesting because it’s Daly, who remains eligible for this tournament because he won it in 1991 when he was both the ninth alternate and one of the sport’s most original stories. Through all his iterations since — struggles with alcohol, divorces, boorish behavior on the course, a somewhat addictive charm off it — he has remained a draw. Love or loathe his loud pants and chain-smoking, they are his wardrobe choices and his lungs, and he will apologize for none of it, thank you very much. Now, step aside so he can both grip and rip.
All of that feeds into why it feels different that he’s the one who asked for a cart at the PGA. It’s not different than, say, Singh or Love. It just feels that way.
I’m willing to concede to Martin on this, though.
“I don’t know John great — played with him a couple times — but I’m a huge John Daly fan,” said Martin, now the golf coach at the University of Oregon. “I don’t think he’s doing this to gain an advantage. He’s played a huge role in that tournament’s history, and he wants to continue competing. I think it’s sincere.”
I’ll be honest: When I first saw that Daly had been granted the right to ride in a cart, I thought it was an affront to Martin, and I thought I was against it. Martin suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a circulatory problem that has cut off blood flow to his lower right leg. He was born with it. He can’t help it. And it means he can’t walk 18 holes a day for four straight days — not to mention practice — and be competitive.
Martin needed a cart. In 2001, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, he won the right to use one on the PGA Tour. In 1998 and 2012, he competed in the U.S. Open — and rode. He’s also happy to remind people what his case was about.
“The Americans With Disabilities Act provides for people individually because all disabilities are different,” Martin said. “It requires you to have an individual assessment. That’s what the tour didn’t do. They returned all my envelopes, all my videos, and didn’t even open them. They were like, ‘This doesn’t apply to us.’ And the courts were like, ‘Of course it applies.’ ”
Which makes sense, and that’s why it’s important that the PGA of America (not to be confused with the PGA Tour) began its statement about Daly’s situation thusly: “The PGA of America has a golf cart request process guided by the ADA.”
That meant it considered Daly’s situation on its merits. He described his limitations as significant. In addition to being a diabetic, Daly said, he no longer has the meniscus in his knee, and the osteoarthritis is bad enough that he can’t walk downhill, which would make playing Bethpage essentially impossible.
“I can’t walk more than six holes before the whole knee swells up,” Daly told the Associated Press, “and then I can’t go anymore.”
Okay, fine. Still, should Tiger Woods have had a cart at the 2008 U.S. Open, which he won on a broken leg? Should Fred Couples get a cart to ease his notoriously achy back? Or, put another way: When Nolan Ryan loses his fastball, should the mound be moved up from 60 feet 6 inches to 50 feet 6 inches?
“To qualify as an individual with a disability under the ADA, one must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” Masteralexis said. “Osteoarthritis is a disability that he’s not going to get rid of. It alters your life functions. It’s not as though anybody can just say, ‘Oh, my back hurts today.’ ”
All right, I’m convinced: John Daly should be allowed to ride in a cart for the PGA. Just make sure the cooler’s strapped on tight.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.