The Supreme Court of the United States has grappled with some pretty daunting issues. Questions about executive privilege, the right to bear arms, and even whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable have come before this august body. As far as one justice was concerned, nothing was as petty as the question of “what is golf?”
In 2001 professional golfer Casey Martin brought suit against the PGA Tour because he was denied the use of a motorized golf cart during the tournament. Martin was born with a degenerative circulatory disorder that causes severe pain and atrophying in his right leg. Martin argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act permits him to request a reasonable accommodation to the PGA rules, allowing him to ride, instead of walk.
The PGA argued that walking is an essential component of the game of golf and that permitting the accommodation requested by Martin would fundamentally alter the game.
The case came before the Supreme Court, which ultimately decided, 7-2, in favor of Casey Martin. Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented from the majority opinion. Unleashing his finely-tuned sarcastic prose, Scalia wrote, “Either out of humility or out of self-respect (one or the other) the Court should decline to answer this incredibly difficult and incredibly silly question.” Additionally, he observed:
It has been rendered the solemn duty of the Supreme Court of the United States, laid upon it by Congress in pursuance of the Federal Government’s power “[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States,” U. S. Const., Art. I, § 8, cl. 3, to decide What Is Golf. I am sure that the Framers of the Constitution, aware of the 1457 edict of King James II of Scotland prohibiting golf because it interfered with the practice of archery, fully expected that sooner or later the paths of golf and government, the law and the links, would once again cross, and that the judges of this august Court would some day have to wrestle with that age-old jurisprudential question, for which their years of study in the law have so well prepared them: Is someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot really a golfer? The answer, we learn, is yes. The Court ultimately concludes, and it will henceforth be the Law of the Land, that walking is not a “fundamental” aspect of golf.
Either out of humility or out of self-respect (one or the other) the Court should decline to answer this incredibly difficult and incredibly silly question. To say that something is “essential” is ordinarily to say that it is necessary to the achievement of a certain object. But since it is the very nature of a game to have no object except amusement (that is what distinguishes games from productive activity), it is quite impossible to say that any of a game’s arbitrary rules is “essential.” Eighteen-hole golf courses, 10-foot-high basketball hoops, 60-foot baselines, 100-yard football fields-all are arbitrary and none is essential. The only support for any of them is tradition and (in more modern times) insistence by what has come to be regarded as the ruling body of the sport-both of which factors support the PGA TOUR’s position in the present case. (Many, indeed, consider walking to be the central feature of the game of golf-hence Mark Twain’s classic criticism of the sport: “a good walk spoiled.”) I suppose there is some point at which the rules of a well-known game are changed to such a degree that no reasonable person would call it the same game. If the PGA TOUR competitors were required to dribble a large, inflated ball and put it through a round hoop, the game could no longer reasonably be called golf. But this criterion-destroying recognizability as the same generic game-is surely not the test of “essentialness” or “fundamentalness” that the Court applies, since it apparently thinks that merely changing the diameter of the cup might “fundamentally alter” the game of golf….