Quite a ride for Martin
Return to Open an inspirational story
SAN FRANCISCO - If part of the US Open is about long shots and unlikely stories, why wouldn’t Casey Martin be here?
The last time the US Open was held at the Olympic Club, in 1998, Martin was right in the middle of things, for two very different reasons: How well he played, and the mode in which he traveled around the golf course. At the time, he was in litigation with the PGA Tour over the right to use a golf cart, and became the first player to use one in competition during either the Masters, US Open, British Open, or PGA Championship.
Facing intense scrutiny that week because of the circus-like atmosphere he had created, and hearing passionate arguments from some of golf’s biggest names either supporting or opposing his legal stance, Martin tied for 23d at the 1998 US Open, the only time he’s ever appeared in a major championship.
Until now, that is.
Still riding in a golf cart - and still limping, due to a circulatory defect in his lower right leg that he was born with - Martin is perhaps the biggest surprise among the 156 players who will begin play Thursday at the 112th US Open. No longer a competitive player, Martin has been the head golf coach at the University of Oregon for six seasons. But because the US Open was returning to Olympic, he decided, on a whim, to make an attempt at qualifying, even though he hadn’t played in any kind of Tour-level tournament since 2006. A 70 to get past local stage, then a 69-69 to become the medalist in a sectional qualifier at Creswell, Ore., and Martin found himself back in the same place. Older, wiser, wittier, funnier.
“It kind of feels like 1998 all over again with a lot of the attention, and it’s great,’’ Martin said, after playing 13 practice holes Monday, his first time on the Lake Course at Olympic since shooting a final-round 72 at the ’98 US Open. “I had a wonderful experience here in ’98 and I thought it would be fun to try to maybe get back. And here I am.
“I don’t get to compete much, so I’ve gone from basically nothing to the pinnacle of golf, which is a lot to take in, emotionally and mentally.’’
He’s no stranger to emotional journeys. Martin, who turned 40 on June 2, successfully sued the PGA Tour, arguing that the Americans with Disabilities Act should allow him the use of a cart, in a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Despite Martin’s affable, cordial demeanor and the sympathetic figure many portrayed him to be, not everyone was in his corner. Many of golf’s biggest stars, including Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, testified or gave depositions that mirrored the PGA Tour’s position, that walking was an integral part of tournament golf, and a cart would provide a competitive advantage. Some felt if Martin was victorious in court, numerous others would attempt to follow and ask the PGA Tour for their own ride. That hasn’t been the case.
“I’m going to say this about Casey Martin,’’ said Paul Azinger, one of the Tour players who felt he shouldn’t be allowed to use a cart, but has since reversed course. “I don’t know where I heard the quote, but I love the quote. ‘It’s not always what you accomplish in life that matters. Sometimes it’s what you overcome.’ Casey Martin is the great overcomer, a terrific person, unbelievable achiever, and winner in life. I think it’s incredible that Casey Martin’s qualified.’’
Martin handled the case with class, content to put himself out front for a cause that he believed in, thinking that over time people’s opinions would change. They have, but he’s still known more for the golf cart than anything else.
“I don’t like to be the center of controversy and it kind of followed me for a long time,’’ Martin said. “But it’s not my nature to necessarily seek that out.
“I am hopeful the way I conduct myself and the way I play that . . . the controversy fades and that you can hopefully just appreciate it. Somebody just trying to pursue their dreams like anybody else, and just trying to play this great game that we all love. Hopefully that will be the lasting impression of it.’’
Martin’s playing career fizzled - his US Open showing in ’98 is one of two top-25 finishes in 41 PGA Tour appearances, and he won once on the Nationwide Tour - and six years ago he became the coach of his hometown Ducks. He’s taken them to the NCAA Championships in four of the past five seasons.
“Just seemed like the time was right, and I don’t regret it at all,’’ Martin said. “I love what I’m doing.’’
Those closest to him see it, too.
“When someone comes out of Stanford, and he’s a bright kid like he is, you think in other sorts of careers, but I don’t judge it that way,’’ said King Martin, Casey’s father, after Monday’s practice round. “As I look back on it, and see what his life experiences have been, and how that plays out with young kids, and see the passion that he has for that, I realize it really is the right thing.’’
In his sectional qualifier, Martin was in the field with - and ended up beating - two of his Oregon players, earning one of two available spots. The fact that he was the medalist and in the US Open again might have made a national splash, but those who know Martin, have known him for a while, aren’t stunned he’s here.
“I was a little surprised, but then again, once you have the basic skills, so much of the game is having the confidence and the faith and the belief, and he has that, so there’s a part of me that wasn’t surprised,’’ said Brad Lanning, Martin’s assistant coach at Oregon who was a three-year teammate of his at Stanford. He’ll also serve as Martin’s caddie this week. “The guy is just a fighter, he absolutely has a will that I have not seen in anybody else that I have known.’’
So Martin is back, viewed by some as the unlikeliest of qualifiers, cheered by many, respected by all. There are practice rounds scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday with another one of his former teammates at Stanford, Tiger Woods. Come Thursday, another date with destiny, 14 years after the first.
“People have been coming up to me this week going, ‘Way to go, I’m so excited for you, you have to be so excited,’ and I am. I want to make it clear I really am excited to be here,’’ Martin said. “But there’s also this, in the back of your mind, the little fear factor of I have to play this golf course. And I don’t play or practice like a lot of these guys, yet I still want to compete.
“For the greatest players in the game it’s a challenge, let alone for a disabled, 40-year-old golf coach. But it’s also a thrill. It’s going to be just a huge challenge, and hopefully I survive the week.’’