When you heard that Casey Martin would play in the U.S. Open this week, did you think he might be a young golfer who happens to have the same name as the one with the withered right leg who fought for the right to use a cart on the PGA Tour more than a decade ago? If you did, Martin doesn't blame you. "I'm sure," he says, laughing, "a lot of people said, 'Really? Are you sure we're talking about the same Casey Martin?'"
This is an article from the June 18, 2012 issue
Well, we are and we aren't. The golfer who earned a spot in the Open by winning a sectional qualifier last week is the same Casey Martin who was competitive enough to earn five top 50 tournament finishes despite excruciating pain, and to wage a four-year legal fight to keep playing even though many fellow golfers opposed his right to ride. (The Supreme Court ruled 7--2 in his favor on Jan. 17, 2001.) But he's also a different Casey Martin—no longer a member of the Tour, he's now the Oregon golf coach, and at 40 far more intense about his Ducks' performances than his own.
That's partly because the atmosphere around him has changed. The Tour somehow survived even though Martin, who suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, which hampers circulation in his right leg, was given an exception from the rule requiring golfers to walk the course. Some of the players who once spoke out against him now regret their opposition. "I was mistaken," Paul Azinger, now a TV analyst, said last week. "Casey Martin needed a break in that regard. He won his case, and I was happy for him." It doesn't feel like a referendum on the Rules of Golf every time Martin revs up his "buggy," as he calls it. Time has passed, an old friend is back, and ... what were we even arguing about, anyway?
Martin is happy and fulfilled coaching the Ducks—whom he calls "my guys" whenever he refers to them, which is often. When he tees off on Thursday at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, the same course where he tied for 23rd at the 1998 Open in the only major of his career, Martin won't feel the same pressure to prove himself. "There's something to be said," he says, "for not caring quite so much."
He learned that by winning the battle but losing the Tour, or at least his Tour card, which he relinquished after finishing 179th on the money list in 2000. He played six more years, mostly on satellite tours, before retiring. "Fighting for the right to play, then not being able to play well enough was tough," he says. "Knowing that not everyone was in favor of my even being there certainly didn't help. But you learn and move on."
This isn't the beginning of a comeback attempt, and no one expects Martin to be anywhere near Open favorites Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood or former Stanford teammate Tiger Woods on Sunday—if Martin even makes it to weekend. In fact, if it weren't for the nostalgia of playing at Olympic, as well as the convenience of having the sectional rounds at Emerald Valley, the Ducks' home course, he wouldn't have tried to qualify at all. "The thing is, I don't really play golf," he says. "At least, I don't play rounds of golf very often. I'll go out and beat some balls with my guys at practice, maybe get out there half an hour early and hit some shots, but I've probably only played 12, 15 rounds in the past year." Martin is far more focused on coaching—he led Oregon to four of the last five NCAA tournaments. "They didn't hire me just to drive the bus," he says. He was so consumed with his team's appearance in the NCAA semifinals the week before the qualifying tourney that he didn't even bring his own clubs with him to practice.
Two days after the Ducks' semifinal loss to Texas, Martin was scheduled to play 36 holes in the qualifier. He hit a half-bucket of balls and played a few holes the next day, then shot a pair of 69s to earn his Open spot. The cosmic moment came in the second round when his drive on the 8th hole disappeared into the woods. After some hunting, the ball finally turned up—under his infamous golf cart. "I must have driven over it during the search," he said. "That's when I started thinking that maybe there's a little destiny working here."
But there have been no strokes of luck where his leg is concerned. The pain is constant, his limp permanent. Martin does consider himself fortunate, however, that the limb's deterioration has slowed. "Back when I was playing, I wasn't sure I would still have a right leg at age 40," he says. Still, his players realize what he has to endure. "You can see that some days are more painful than others," says senior Eugene Wong, an All-America, "but it doesn't seem to affect how he deals with us."
Playing in the Open after so many years away from the Tour, Martin isn't expecting any miracles. "It's like retiring from the NBA, playing H-O-R-S-E for five years and then suddenly being in the NBA Finals," he says. But then Martin thinks a moment. "Obviously if I could make the cut and take home a paycheck, that would be great. That's something to shoot for." A golfer whose competitiveness overrides his pain? Yeah, it's the same Casey Martin.