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Monday, October 15, 2007
Martin still overcoming obstacles to extend time on the course

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

EUGENE, Ore. -- Like the swooping, powerful swing that once made Casey Martin one of the longest hitters in professional golf, his life has come nearly full circle.

Casey Martin
Tiger Woods' former teammate, Casey Martin first made headlines as an All-American golfer at Stanford.

Martin is back home in Oregon, where as a young boy, he learned to cope with a debilitating birth defect in his right leg by outstriking, outchipping and outputting every other player on the course. He played collegiately at Stanford, where Tiger Woods and Notah Begay were his teammates, and then reluctantly became the poster child for athletes with disabilities. In 2001, Martin successfully sued the PGA Tour for the right to use a golf cart, winning a 7-2 verdict handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Being allowed to use a golf cart never helped diminish the pain in his right leg, however, and Martin was completely out of competitive golf within five years of the landmark court decision.

Now, more than a year after leaving golf's minor league tours, Martin still drives a cart on the course as the University of Oregon's golf coach. He uses a cart to navigate his way through the Ducks' practice rounds, even occasionally bringing his own clubs along for the ride.

"I'm playing with the guys quite a bit, and I enjoy going out and playing with them and seeing their games up front," Martin said. "I do it all the time. I can still play, but I'm not as comfortable as I'd like to be."

Martin, 35, hasn't been comfortable for nearly two years. Well, he hasn't been comfortable his entire life, really. He was born with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a rare circulatory condition that caused the veins in his right leg to be abnormally twisted. Blood has leaked onto his right tibia each day of his life, deteriorating the bone so much that Martin now realizes amputation is the only solution. "You can't do anything about it," Martin said. "I'm looking at no other options outside of one day not having [my leg]."

Martin has tried radical procedures in the past. In January 2002, he underwent surgery that nearly killed him. A surgeon attempted to seal the veins in his right leg, which was supposed to finally stop the bleeding. But Martin developed an infection that nearly went to his heart, which could have caused him to die.

"I've tried a few things and nothing has worked," Martin said. "It's just been bad. Everything I've tried was a disaster."

At a young age, Martin knew losing his leg was a strong possibility. But only now does amputation seem a reality.

"I've always known I'd lose it," Martin said. "But it's only been in the future."

But Martin is focused on his future at Oregon. He is in his first full season as the Ducks' coach, after spending much of the 2006 season as a volunteer assistant. Steve Nosler, the Ducks' previous coach, lobbied Martin to take the job. Nosler even remained on Martin's staff as an assistant, handling much of the program's administrative duties.

"I just thought he was capable of doing so much more with the program," Nosler said.

Although Martin says he never really wanted the attention he received while fighting his legal battle against the PGA Tour, he admits the notoriety has helped him as a novice coach. It has opened more doors in recruiting and probably helped him land the Oregon job. He had no prior coaching or instructional experience.

"I think [being a recognizable figure] helps," Martin said. "It enables me to talk to some kids. It's definitely been a plus, but it's not like I've got kids from L.A. lined up to play because I've got a name. There's more to it than that. Even if the kids aren't aware of what happened, their parents probably are."

Sean Maekawa, one of the Ducks' top freshman players, said what Martin accomplished on the course -- and not in the courts -- helped sway him to sign with Oregon.

Casey Martin
What Martin lacks in coaching experience, he makes up for in life experience -- both on the course and off.

"It made a difference," Maekawa said. "The fact he was an All-American and played professional golf for a number of years, that's something I'd like to do one day. He's already been there. I knew he could pass on his knowledge, having gone down that road before."

Martin faces a difficult challenge in trying to build the Ducks into one of the top golf programs on the West Coast. Some of the obstacles are insurmountable. Martin said one of his most arduous tasks in recruiting is convincing out-of-state players there are enough dry days in Oregon to play golf competitively.

"There is a perception that it rains here every day," Martin said.

Oregon has a small talent pool to begin with -- it is located in the smallest state in the Pac-10 in terms of population -- so signing out-of-state prospects is a priority for the Ducks. Martin said he might consider trying to recruit international players, but he wants to target the top two players from Oregon each year.

"To be a top-10 program, I've got to have kids from outside Oregon," Martin said.

Martin's first team includes seven freshmen: four from Oregon and one each from California, Hawaii and Australia. Only four of the rookies received some form of financial aid; Martin must disperse 4½ scholarships among his entire team. Oregon lost five players from the 2006 team that finished eighth in the Pac-10 Championships and 19th in the NCAA West Regional.

Martin said he's still learning as a coach and teacher. He isn't yet comfortable overhauling a swing and doesn't use video to analyze his players' games. Maekawa said Martin is still capable of helping a player improve his game, though.

"It's just simple stuff," Maekawa said. "He doesn't make really major changes. He just makes suggestions and you try them out. It's only simple things. I like that approach."

Martin said he never had a golf lesson until after he finished playing at Stanford. Even when Martin consulted a swing doctor while playing professionally, "it never translated into lower scores," he said.

Martin hopes to set higher standards at Oregon. The Ducks haven't won a share of a Pac-10 championship since winning the league's South Division in 1977 and haven't won an outright conference title since 1959. The Ducks' Pac-10 competition includes seven-time NCAA champion Stanford and three other schools that have won national titles.

"Oregon has always been competitive, but not dominant," Martin said. "I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't think this program can be good."

Off the course, life is as good as it can be for Martin. Most of his family, including his parents and grandparents, still lives in Eugene. His father, King, and older brother, Cameron, work as financial consultants in town.

"It's been a really good fit for me," Martin said. "Having grown up here, I've always been a huge Oregon fan. Even though I didn't go to school here, I've always called this home. To come back and try to build something and take it to the next level, it's a dream come true."

Even if it took a nightmare to make it happen.

"I never wanted to go through something like that," Martin said, of his legal battle against the PGA Tour. "But a lot of good things happened in my life because of it. I got a ton of opportunities on the tours and had some financial opportunities come up. I got tremendous recognition in golf. It's helping me now."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.