Trying to turn a public relations disaster into a publicity plus, the PGA Tour has all but embraced Casey Martin and his cart.
Commissioner Tim Finchem said Thursday that Martin almost certainly will play in a PGA Tour event this year and probably will have at least two years without legal interference to ride on the pro tour.
"Casey Martin is a guy you want playing on the PGA Tour," Finchem said from his office in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "He is an extremely popular individual and a role model. How would you not want him playing?"
After months of fighting Martin - and losing three times in court and even more decisively in the court of public opinion - the tour now seems ready to accept the disabled golfer.
Along with the acceptance by the tour, Martin will have his pick of big-money endorsement deals but will live with the fear his shriveled right leg will eventually not allow him to walk at all.
The PGA Tour still plans to appeal the federal judge's ruling on Wednesday that allows Martin to ride in tournaments because his leg makes it painful to walk, Finchem said. But the tour will allow the appeal to unfold at its own pace. It could have requested an immediate stay of the ruling and could ask the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to expedite the matter.
"The main thing right now is that everyone needs to recognize that it might take years for this to be decided," Finchem said. "What we want to do is get back to playing golf. Casey will be afforded a cart."
Finchem said the PGA Tour still feels it has the right to make the rules for its competitions, that walking is an essential part of the game and that a player riding a cart has an advantage.
"All the issues are the same," Finchem said. "Some time in a couple of years the appeals court will decide if the judge made the right decision."
In the meantime, Martin will ride. And while the ruling affects only Martin, Finchem said the PGA Tour's Policy Board would at a later day discuss the need for language governing the use of carts.
Martin is scheduled to play in the next Nike Tour event March 5-8 in Austin, Texas. And even though he is not a member of the PGA Tour, he could be invited to a tournament by a sponsor.
"Casey is a national figure. I have to assume some sponsor would want him to play," Finchem said.
Martin is allowed seven sponsor exemptions a year. He will not get one for the Tucson Chrysler Classic next week, tournament official Judy McDermott said. He could still be invited to the Nissan Open in Los Angeles before the Austin event.
While the appeals process will take years, it is not clear how long Martin's leg - which is getting worse - will hold up even while he uses a cart.
"I don't think anyone knows how it is going to progress," said Dr. William Straw, the team physician for the San Francisco Giants who worked with pitcher Dave Dravecky when he tried to return frocancer only to have his arm break while throwing a pitch in 1989.
"The muscles are quite wasted away and the bone itself is weak," Straw said. "In that sense, he could sustain further injury in even normal activity in the next two years."
Martin, 25, could have his next legal tussle with the United States Golf Association, which runs the U.S. Open.
As a winner on the Nike Tour this year, Martin is exempt from local qualifying for the U.S. Open and needs only to get through the 36-hole sectional qualifier June 8 or 9 to play in the tournament.
Martin said he wants to play in the U.S. Open and almost certainly would need a cart to get through 36 holes in one day.
"We will make no real decision for a while," said USGA spokesman Marty Parkes. "There is no rush. We want to look more carefully at the decision and the options."
It is likely that the Masters - for which Martin has not qualified - would follow the USGA's decision. And the PGA of America said Thursday it would obey any court ruling on the matter.
In the meantime, Martin has emerged as one of the most recognized athletes in America and should have a wide range of business opportunities.
"Stop someone on the street and asked them to name three golfers and they will say Nicklaus, Tiger and Casey Martin," said Ryan Schinman, executive vice president of marketing for Worldwide Sports and Entertainment, a consulting firm.
"The kid's got a five-course meal in front of him on his plate and guess who is sitting across the table in front of him? Phil Knight, the Mr. `I Can' Man," Schinman said referring to the founder of Nike and its advertising slogan.
"The next question is what are the limits," Schinman said. "Will we see a swoosh on his cart?"
The idea gave Finchem pause.
"We would oppose signage on carts," he said. "And I don't think Casey would go that way."
Right now, it seems like Martin can go anywhere he wants - at least for the next couple of years.