The PGA Tour begins its East Coast swing toward the Masters Tournament this week with a great field at Doral, but much of the focus is on Austin, Texas, where Casey Martin returns to action on the Nike Tour.
Martin will be riding his court-won cart and has won some lucrative endorsements as the PGA Tour's minor league takes precedence over occurrences in Miami, where many of the top international stars begin PGA Tour play.
The Masters, the first major of the year, is scheduled for April 9-12 at the Augusta National Golf Club.
"We owe it to everyone involved to take another look and see if we can make an accommodation without upsetting the competitive nature of the game," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem told The Associated Press from his home in Ponte Vedra Beach.
He plans to discuss the issue during the next two months with his players and other golf organizations.
"I wish there was a solution," he said. "But I am not optimistic."
On a week when the PGA Tour kicks into high gear as it swings to the East Coast for the Doral-Ryder Open, the first event that draws the top international stars leading to the Masters, much attention will be on Austin, Texas, where Martin returns to the Nike Tour.
Martin, who won one Nike event this year and missed the cut in the other, is to announce today his deals to play Ping clubs and the Spalding Top-Flite Strata Tour ball. He also will have the logo of The Hartford, an insurance and financial services group, on his bag.
Martin could have made his PGA Tour debut this week at Doral under a sponsor's invitation. Instead, he kept his commitment to the Nike Tour and plans to play circuit events four of the next five weeks.
Martin wasn't at the course in Austin on Monday. In an interview on the NBC-TV Today show, he said he hoped to play well after all the publicity.
"I've never dealt with this type of exposure and media attention, and I don't want to go make a clown of myself," he said. "But I'll just trust whatever happens is for the best and do my best, and I can't promise anything. I'm just grateful I have a chance now."
While Martin, already under contract to wear Nike clothing, is not getting anything near Tiger Woods-like money, he has emerged as one of the most recognized names in golf.
"The Casey Martin case has been a distraction from a great start to the season," Finchem said Sunday. "But the point is that he is going to have a golf cart for an extended period of time.
"The main thing is to let him play golf. The issues remain the same as we argued them in court. Casey will play and he should be allowed to focus on golf. Each week that he competes shouldn't turn into a debate on the issue."
Martin sued the PGA Tour under the Americans With Disabilities Act and asked for a cart to accommodate his rare circulatory disorder that makes it painful to walk. A federal magistrate ruled for Martin on Feb. 11 in Eugene, Ore.
The tour maintains walking is part of competitive golf and providing a cart to some players and not others is unfair. The tour also argued it has the right -- not the courts -- to establish the rules of professional golf.
"The lawsuit involved Casey Martin," Finchem said. "But the rules of competition have to be administered without a personal consideration. None of that has really changed."
While the PGA Tour said it will appeal, it also said it would not aggressively try to block Martin from playing and the courts probably would take two years to rule.
Martin will play four Nike Tour events in the next six weeks, starting Thursday in Austin. He will then play the Monterrey (Mexico) Open on March 19-22, the Louisiana Open on March 26-29 and the Shreveport (La.) Open on April 9-12.
Public opinion overwhelmingly sides with Martin, and even if the PGA Tour is able to legally establish its right to make the rules, it still faces an uphill fight to convince recreational golfers -- most of whom ride carts -- that walking is part of the game.
"I think this case has taught us a lesson," Finchem said. "We have to do a better job of convincing the public that these people playing golf at its highest level are athletes," he said. "The role of walking just doesn't come through."
The countdown to Tiger Woods' return to the Masters has started in earnest. Woods is playing even better than last year at this time, with two seconds and a third in three starts on the PGA Tour with closing rounds of 64, 68 and 66.
And maybe attention will shift to the likes of Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Fred Couples, all having won already this year.
Perhaps the most fitting indication of the strange start to 1998 is that Woods, Greg Norman and Ernie Els have all won this year -- but none of those victories has been on the PGA Tour.
"I think we are going to take a low profile and let golf come to the forefront," Finchem said.
The success of that strategy will depend a lot on how well Martin does on the Nike Tour.
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