SAN FRANCISCO — The facts of the matter are these: 155 golfers will walk this week around the Olympic Club, planted at the top of a steep hill that provides all kinds of awkward stances, in the 112th U.S. Open. One will ride in a golf cart. That would seem to be an opening for old wounds and stale debates. Is golf a sport? Are golfers athletes? Should a man with a lifelong disability be afforded a comfort that will allow him to compete?
But the way Casey Martin handled himself here — both 14 years ago, when he made his first and only U.S. Open appearance, and again Monday — kind of makes all that dissipate. Martin will not win the Open. He may not be around for the weekend. But his unlikely appearance is one of the week’s best stories, and his reintroduction to the public is a way to remind people of what he once went through just to pursue his passion.
“I don’t like to be the center of controversy,” Martin said, “and it kind of followed me for a long time.”
Once, Martin was a symbol, a role with which he was never quite comfortable. “There’s baggage around all that,” said his father, King, on Monday. Since birth, Casey Martin has suffered from a rare circulatory condition called Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome. His right leg is withering. He stands with his weight on his left foot, his left hip cocked higher. Put too much stress on that right leg, and it could fracture. His gait is more than a limp, less than a stagger. In 1998, with what he hoped would be a reasonably long career ahead of him, he was willing to fight to play for a living. Now, playing is mostly done.
“This is at the point where I didn’t know if I would ever really be able to keep my leg,” Martin said. “So it’s not great. When I wake up, I feel it. When I get out of the golf cart, I feel it.”
Because of his condition, Martin argued under the Americans With Disabilities Act that he should be able to use a golf cart in competition on the minor league Nike Tour (now the Nationwide Tour) and, eventually, the PGA Tour. He sued the tour for that right in 1998, and won. The tour appealed. Three years later, Casey Martin, his golf cart and his sport ended up in the Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, Martin prevailed.
“There’s a huge price to something like that in terms of your life’s privacy and what it does to a lot of the dynamics in your life,” King Martin said Monday. “But you wouldn’t trade it. What I mean by that is I think life’s trials, everyday trials, form and make you. It’s all a process, and you have to go through it. It just feels divine in a way.”
Less than a year ago, when Martin first mentioned to his father that he might try to qualify for Olympic — where he tied for 23rd in 1998 — King Martin pulled out the hat the USGA sends annually to members, this one with an Olympic logo. He put it in his office, on display. “Let me set that out there and see if this wild dream might come true,” King Martin said to himself.
It was, indeed, a wild dream. Martin was once a teammate of Tiger Woods at Stanford, but now he is 40 years old. His right leg feels 80, maybe older. He is the head coach at the University of Oregon, in his home town of Eugene. His last real tournament, he figures, was a 2006 Nationwide Tour event. He has played perhaps 15 rounds for score this year. Yet he advanced through 18 holes of local qualifying, then played in a dreary 36-hole sectional qualifier the day after he led Oregon to a third-place finish at the NCAA tournament. In the dark and the damp at 18, he holed a five-footer for par. He advanced to Olympic by a stroke.
“I would say, as a family,” King Martin said, “that was one of the highest moments I can remember.”
There have been, over the years, discussions about the future of Martin’s leg, but his circulatory problems extend well up into his buttocks, and any amputation would have to come above the knee. “It’s not simple,” King Martin said. Those around him, though, never hear of such debates, never hear of the pain he endures daily.
“I’m with him a lot, travel with him a lot with the team,” said Jim Bartko, Oregon’s executive senior associate athletic director, who oversees the golf program. “He never brings it up. It’s not something he talks about, not something he makes an issue of. He’s dealt with it all his life. Nobody probably really understands, besides him and his family, what he’s gone through.”
During his practice round Monday, Martin pulled his tee shot left at the par-3 eighth. He drove his cart slowly down a hill, then back up again, before parking it. He trudged to his ball, his gait watched intently by a growing gallery. He pulled out a wedge, flopped the ball out of some matted-down rough, and watched as it tumbled onto the putting surface. It rolled, perfectly and assuredly, into the center of the cup. The crowd clapped more than politely, and on a glorious morning by the bay, Casey Martin’s world again seemed defined by possibilities, not obstacles.
“I am hopeful the way that I conduct myself and the way I play, or whatever, that the controversy fades and that you can just hopefully appreciate it,” Martin said. “Somebody just trying to pursue their dreams like anybody else, and just trying to play this great game that we all love.”