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Leveling the playing field

With the aide of a cart, golfer Ryan Mort overcomes a degenerative disorder and competes at a high level

Ryan Mort puts up a brave, if not stubborn, defense.

He used to play soccer, basketball and baseball, but shelved them all in favor of golf. There wasn't enough time for everything, he shrugs.

If he wanted, says Mort, he could go out and play hoops.

Right now, he emphasizes.

But no sooner would he rise from his chair and walk off with that jabbing, staccato gait, than it would become apparent this would be, at most, a game of H-O-R-S-E. Maybe just a shoot-around.

— His agility has been compromised, his leg-strength diminished by a hereditary neurological disorder, Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease. It's characterized by a slow degeneration of muscles, usually in the lower legs.

He walks toe-to-heel instead of heel-to-toe, says his father, Tim Mort.

This, of course, makes golf an interesting choice as an all-consuming passion.

Ryan Mort is a junior on the South Medford team competing in the Southern Oregon Conference championships today and Tuesday at Roseburg Country Club. He is expected to be a central figure if the Panthers are to sneak in and burgle a berth to state from one of the two favorites, North Medford and Roseburg.

Regardless of whether he and his teammates succeed, Mort will be conspicuous. He'll be the only player using a golf cart, an allowance he received after petitioning the Oregon School Activities Association. He is one of two players in the state permitted to do so. The other competes for Baker High.

Their situation is similar to that of Casey Martin, the Oregon golfer who won a Supreme Court decision nearly three years ago allowing him, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to use a cart on the PGA Tour.

Mort's condition isn't painful and it doesn't affect life expectancy, but the manner in which he walks hastens fatigue. He steps as if jamming dots on exclamation points, occasionally catching his toes on the ground. When golf is added to the mix ' the hills, valleys and length, the weight of a bag filled with clubs and balls ' the strain on his stride is magnified considerably.

When he carries his bag for 18 holes, says his father, it's like carrying a bucket of sand along with him.

For Ryan Mort, golf isn't a good walk spoiled. Quite the opposite.

Still, he's managed to rise through the ranks and solidify his position as the Panthers' No. 4 player. He didn't start using a cart until the fifth of South's seven matches ' explanations for the delay differ ' and the impact on his play and South's team scores has been dramatic.

Without a cart, Mort's stroke average was 89. In the three events since, it's 84, helping the Panthers to their three best team scores.

His best round was an 82 at Trysting Tree Golf Club in Corvallis 1&

189; weeks ago.

Enhanced stamina seems to be the biggest benefit of the cart.

After the first nine holes, what happened early in the season was I got tired, says Mort. The cart has allowed me to finish the round as strong as I want.

Coming down the stretch on holes 12, 13 or 14, now I'm thinking, 'Just par in and you'll be OK,' whereas earlier, I was thinking, 'Oh boy, I don't know if I can make pars to shoot 41 or 42.'

It was not a level playing field. Players he competed against had much more left in their tanks.

They were just stronger than I was in that area, says Mort. Now we're at the same fatigue level.

There was a time when the Morts didn't know what Ryan had, only that something was amiss even as he ran all day with his friends and partook of a variety of sports.

Their first indication came when Ryan, at age 3, had a total neurological breakdown, says Tim Mort. His motor functions were just gone.

Yet it wasn't until Ryan was 14 that a specialist in California pinpointed CMT. It was passed on to him from his mother, Kathleen.

She had it 40-some years and never realized she had it, says Tim Mort, adding that his now ex-wife had a less-severe version. She thought she was just clumsy.

Ryan played all the sports, including pitching and playing center field at the majors level inLittle Leaguebaseball. He eventually settled on golf, he says, because he liked it the most. Although he doesn't say as much, golf also gave him the best chance to compete in high school.

For two years, Ryan Mort handled junior varsity golf and the necessary walking because it was nine holes and the courses were relatively tame.

The same couldn't be said of varsity play, so the Morts petitioned the OSAA for use of a cart this season.

It didn't happen for weeks.

Ryan Mort says he didn't know exactly what paperwork he needed to supply, and that held up the process. His father and South coach Bill Singler say Ryan needed a little prodding.

He was a little self-conscious early in the year, says Singler. He didn't want to do it ... Kids want to be treated like everybody else. They don't want anything special.

Ryan Mort had similarly petitioned the Oregon Golf Association to use a cart last summer in junior play, and when he was allowed to do so, saw his scores occasionally dip into the 70s, including a career-low round of 76.

But Mort was apprehensive about using a cart in high school.

I was a little on edge about the cart thing and what people would think, says Mort. Then I stopped and thought about it and said, 'Who cares what people think?' It seems like no one has a problem with it. All the players have been very supportive of it. It's been a good thing.

As it happens, Mort had a fleeting meeting with Martin at the Fred Meyer Challenge in Portland, having his picture taken with and getting an autograph from the man who blazed a trail he would follow.

Had he not done that, says Tim Mort of Martin, there's a good chance bodies like the OGA and the OSAA wouldn't have stepped up and done what they did. We have a situation now where it puts life back into the game for Ryan. It allows him to be competitive with the other kids.

Now it's a good ride that may never be spoiled.

South Medford junior golfer Ryan Mort is one of two Oregon high school players who petitioned the Oregon School Activities Association and received permission to use a cart during competition. The result was a decrease of five shots in his scoring averag Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli