Casey Martin has faded into the forgotten American sports referendum, his rotting right leg that fearlessly climbed the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court now descending into the deepest bunkers of the Nationwide Tour.
Once, he was the debate that consumed sports and society in America. Everyone grabbed a side on Martin and his golf cart, the way they do Augusta National and female membership, Pete Rose and reinstatement.
Yet, everyone lost interest when the cart turned off the PGA Tour and was steered to Buy.com tour stops in Odessa and Richmond and Dayton these past two years. The $30,218 earnings for 2002 leave Martin No. 117 on the minor league money list. Out of sight, out of mind, out of discussion.
But there's a touch of triumph and tragedy to see Martin's out there; still swinging, still limping, still pushing that pulsating pain in his leg to the pockets of his psyche. He's had two terrible seasons on the minor league tour, but all the heartache suddenly washed away over the weekend in the California desert, the qualifying school tournament in La Quinta bringing his swing back to life, within a whisper of regaining his PGA Tour card.
Between the final nine holes and a return to a nation's consciousness this week, Martin lost his touch, dissolving into two double bogeys and one broken heart.
"I left very discouraged," Martin said by phone from his home in Eugene, Ore., this week. "(With) all the disappointment from the last three years, to falter like I did over the last nine holes at La Quinta ... it really hurt; even more than I thought it would."
He has never used his leg as an excuse and insisted, "I'm not going to start now," over his late collapse. Still, he has a degenerative condition that eventually could leave him an amputee. Martin has a defect called Klippel-Trenauney-Weber Syndrome, where blood flows into his leg but struggles to make it out. It leaves his leg swollen, bleeding internally and with a pain we probably couldn't comprehend unless someone repeatedly swung a sledgehammer into our leg.
|Casey Martin and his cart return to the PGA Tour for the first time since his collapse in the final round of Q-school.|
With the uneven shot stances born out of the severity of the greens, the two courses "wore my legs out," he said. "I had more pain at the end of the week than I've ever had in the past." There are mornings it takes everything for him to climb out of bed, never mind climb in and out of his cart during practice rounds. He never stops. He never complains. He doesn't want your pity on the course. He just wants you to get out of the way, let him drive past and get to his ball.
Professional sports needs Martin. It isn't just the inspiration he gives hundreds of thousands of disabled Americans, but what he delivers to the perfectly fit and able. These days, we consider courage as a million-dollar running back playing with a tender ankle. "So many times I just saw this kid dying on the course in college and it's even worse now," retired Stanford coach Wally Goodwin said from Palo Alto. "He has courage like I've never seen in sports. And he has it every single day."
Everyone had his opinion on Martin and his cart. Some were fair-minded, some narrow, but nobody could dispute the dignity of his disposition. As these social issues within sports and society go, the participants -- Rose to Bud Selig, Hootie Johnson to Martha Burk -- can be so hard to root on, because they're so easy to despise. Who didn't love Casey Martin? Even the hard hearted resisting his use of the cart on tour couldn't resist his passion and persistence.
He never wanted to be a martyr, but he's the closest his generation of athletes has come to giving us one. If Martin could've just stayed on the sport's grandest stage, competed for championships on the PGA tour, he could've sustained a status as a generation's most influential athlete.
|The physically challenging courses in the California desert that golfers played on to qualify for their PGA Tour cards took a toll on Casey Martin's withering leg.|
"In a perfect world, I would be out there playing so well that I'd be hearing people griping that I've got an advantage because of the cart. But I'm in the background now. I haven't played well for a long time.
"& But I would still rather deal with the pain than throw in the towel. I'm not giving up."
For Martin to endure this pain on the PGA Tour, where the purses are rich, the galleries thick and the ovations long and loud, would constitute considerable courage. To hang in there on the Buy.com Tour -- which will be called the Nationwide Tour in 2003 -- is just beyond belief. He's 30 years old. His leg is killing him. "When I wake up, I still want to play better," Martin said. "If that ever leaves, I'll hang it up in a heartbeat. But that's still there." After Goodwin talked to him within 24 hours of the Q-school collapse, he hung up incredulous over his old player.
"He had just come home that night from California, and it was just like talking to him when he was young kid playing for me -- just as positive, just as determined," Goodwin said. "At one stage in college, we talked about the possibility of him winding up with no leg. He said to me, 'Coach, at least my knee's not going to hurt anymore.' He even thought maybe the doctors could end up making him something better than he has ... He always sees the possibilities in life. That's why he's come far this far."
Casey Martin goes back to work now, his cart destined for a 2003 summer of tee times in golfing outposts from the oil fields of Texas to the Midwestern prairies. He should still be the biggest social story in sports, but Hootie Johnson holds his shaky ground and Augusta National has replaced him and his cart as the fight of right and wrong in sports. It should be little surprise that Martin is a champion for the inclusion of female members, saying "If you host a tournament that's one of the majors in the world, then you shouldn't have discriminatory practices. If you're going to host a major, you have to do the right thing."
What would be most moving at the Masters wouldn't be a woman slipping on a green jacket, but Martin's cart rumbling over the bridge on Amen Corner and pushing for his own fitting. He's running out of time, but his appearance would sure shake those unbending old boys to their core, wouldn't it?
"There's no window of time that I know for sure is left with my leg," Casey Martin said. "I don't have the time others do. But when I was a senior in college, I didn't think I could it make this far. It might end tomorrow or a long time from now.
"I'll keep playing until it's impossible."
Always pushing to get back on the PGA Tour, to leave some beaten, flustered fool to gripe that his cart is actually an advantage.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.
||In a perfect world, I would be out there playing so well that I'd be hearing people griping that I've got an advantage because of the cart. But I'm in the background now. I haven't played well for a long time. ... But I would still rather deal with the pain than throw in the towel. I'm not giving up. ”
||— Casey Martin