Casey Martin has always been an overachiever in a game where no one has ever made it on physical talent alone. However, if you’re measuring sheer strength of will and size of the heart, Martin stands among golf’s giants.
For most of his 49 years, Martin dragged around a right leg afflicted with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a degenerative circulatory disorder that atrophied his leg and made it difficult — and as the years went by — increasingly painful and dangerous to walk.
Last week, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota amputated the most controversial leg in golf. The surgery took Martin’s leg above the knee, as first reported by Golf Digest.
Even if he knew this was the ultimate outcome, Martin was singularly steadfast in his determination to make his way through the highest levels of the game as a man with two legs, even with one that was fragile, as long as his body and mind would allow. In that regard, Casey Martin is the most courageous person in the game — and there’s not a close second.
Martin beat the odds any number of times in his career. Despite his handicap, he was a terrific talent and helped Stanford win the NCAA title in 1994 with Notah Begay as a teammate. Tiger Woods was a teammate the following year. But by the end of Martin’s college career, he could no longer walk 18 holes and carry his clubs, which was a Pac-10 Conference and NCAA requirement. Stanford successfully obtained a waiver for Martin.
He turned pro in 1997 and at the time, the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament allowed competitors to use carts in first and second stage but not the final stage. Martin sued the Tour, claiming that under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the Tour should grant him that accommodation. By then, walking 18 holes, even with a caddie, had become too painful and difficult for Martin. He faced increasing significant risks of hemorrhaging, blood clots and even fracture of his leg, which could have meant amputation.
Martin was granted a preliminary injunction while the case made its way through the courts and he played the Nike Tour in 1998-99. In 1999, he had six top-10 finishes, including a second and a third, which graduated him to the PGA Tour. In 2000, he made 14 of 29 cuts and won only $143,000.
The Supreme Court heard his case in 2001 and ruled 7-2 in his favor. Victory was hollow because Martin was effectively done as a player.
The issue divided players, officials and even the media. I wrote for GOLF Magazine that I believed walking was fundamental to competitive golf at the highest level and that a cart was an advantage for any player, even one with Martin’s affliction. Over a long career, there aren’t many things I wish I hadn’t written but this is one.
In 2012, when Martin qualified for and competed at the U.S. Open — with the use of a cart — Brandel Chamblee still hadn’t let it go. He said on Golf Channel of the Supreme Court case, “I think if somebody at that time had done a study of caloric expenditures over the course of a round, over the course of a week, and found the cumulative effect that has on your cognitive ability, then you could say walking is definitely part of golf.”
Chamblee was correct about the science of walking. However, he was wrong about the human element of the case. And so was I. Neither of us had trudged even 100 excruciating, grueling, awkward yards in Martin’s shoes and therefore were singularly unqualified to provide a public opinion on the matter.
Martin was hired as head golf coach at the University of Oregon in 2006 and in 2016, the Ducks won the NCAA Championship, giving Martin the rare double of a national title as a player and a coach.
He broke his leg two years ago, according to Golf Digest, and it never fully healed, leaving amputation as the only option. However, he had far exceeded doctors’ expectations because they believed drastic action would have been necessary long before now.
Martin didn’t take the most powerful entity in the game to the highest court in the land looking for an advantage. All he wanted was a way to make things level enough that he could fairly test his skills against the best players in the world.
He should be thought of, not as the guy in the cart, but as someone who has had to fight relentlessly each day just to make it to the end still standing. And now that part of one leg is missing, that struggle is about to get exponentially tougher.
However, if the life Martin has persevered through thus far tells us anything at all, this is not his final chapter. It’s just the next one.