Golfers aren’t shy about expressing their opinions. Lately, we at the USGA have heard a lot about two issues: the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Casey Martin case and the decision not to grant a special exemption to Nancy Lopez for the U.S. Women’s Open.
Before I explain our actions in both cases, I want to emphasize that our decisions aren’t personal. Both golfers are wonderful people who reflect well upon our sport. In fact, that’s precisely why it was so difficult to leave personalities out of our thinking while we tried to be fair and consistent.
Let’s look at Casey Martin first. The USGA was not a party to this lawsuit but we did support the PGA Tour, largely for two reasons: We felt that governing bodies, rather than courts, should set the parameters of an athletic competition; and that such parameters should apply equally to all competitors.
After a court ruling in Martin’s favor against the tour, we voluntarily provided him a golf cart at the 1998 U.S. Open. When a similar lawsuit in a different court later denied another player the use of a cart at Open qualifying, though, even legal experts seemed confused about the issue.
The Supreme Court ruling in favor of Casey clarifies the issue. The USGA respects the decision and will follow it in considering requests for automotive transportation from individuals with permanent disabilities (not temporary conditions) who wish to play in USGA championships.
As we continue through this championship season, we will do our best with any situations that present themselves. We will work to develop a process for receiving and evaluating requests on a case-by-case basis. That could become a big job. While there are only about 1,000 players total on the domestic men’s and women’s tours, the USGA receives more than 30,000 championship entries annually.
The numbers as well as specifics will, no doubt, make dealing with these requests tricky. I can assure you of one thing: We will try to make our decisions as consistent and fair as possible. It won’t be personal.
That goes for our decision not to give Lopez a special exemption. We wouldn’t have given her our Association’s highest honor, the Bob Jones Award, in 1998 if we didn’t have the utmost regard and respect for her. Her presence enhances any Women’s Open.
The USGA Women’s Committee, however, is responsible for reviewing playing records to determine if any Women’s Open special exemptions are warranted. The Committee extended special exemptions to Lopez in 1999 and 2000 based upon her strong playing record in previous Opens and in events preceding them. But she hadn’t played much competitive golf this year, so the Committee felt it would not be fair and consistent to grant her an exemption.
Our Women’s Open is just that, an open competition. Any professional, or an amateur who retains a USGA Handicap Index of 4.4 or lower, can enter. A record 980 entries were received this year; the majority of the 150 competitors at Pine Needles had played themselves into the field. Lopez could have done that, but she didn’t earn a berth in sectional qualifying. The same thing happened to Scott Simpson and Curtis Strange; both former U.S. Open champions failed to receive exemptions or to advance through qualifying. That’s how open championships work.
Special exemptions are reviewed each year. Lopez may be awarded another, but it will be based largely upon her playing record and not her popularity.
As we said before, it’s nothing personal.