Martin's struggle sets stage for Compton's opportunity

MACON, Ga. -- The golf cart that helped make him famous is now an accepted part of his day's work, making him no different than any of the other college coaches cruising about the Brickyard at Riverside course where Casey Martin is trying to keep tabs on his University of Oregon players.

Nobody thinks anything of his jumping in that cart now, as Martin surveys the scenic surroundings at the Brickyard Collegiate tournament while engrossed in his new career.

That wasn't the case a decade ago, when Martin was fighting the PGA Tour for the right to use the vehicle in competition because of a degenerative condition in his right leg known as Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a birth defect that makes it extremely painful for him to walk.

The notion of a player's riding a cart was -- and still is -- the subject of considerable debate. Martin's case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001, where the high court ruled in his favor, citing the Americans With Disabilities Act.

This week, Erik Compton will be allowed the use of a cart at the first stage of a PGA Tour qualifying tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla. Compton, 28, who endured his second heart transplant in May, petitioned to use a cart at the 72-hole qualifier, which begins Tuesday at Crandon Park Golf Club.

A review committee of three PGA Tour executives examined Compton's medical records with the help of a tour medical advisor and ruled in his favor. He will have use of a cart in PGA Tour co-sanctioned events through March 2009, when he can re-apply.

No lawsuits. No controversy. And very little fanfare. So little, in fact, that Martin was not even aware of Compton's "victory" until a reporter told him.

"I love it; I'm taking 50 percent of his earnings," Martin said. "Seriously, I'm pumped. I'm pumped because I know Erik, and he's got a serious condition that justifies this. He is seriously good. He can really, really play. It's not like some guy on some mega-pipe dream trying to get recognition. This guy is a great player who could literally play the tour for a long time. I'm ecstatic that what I went through can help somebody else out."

And Martin went through a lot. He always believed that his situation was rare. He thought the combination of a high-level player who needed the use of a cart and could justify using one would rarely, if ever, happen again. Compton is the only other player who has been granted a cart.

A three-time All-Pac-10 player and member of Stanford's 1994 NCAA title team, Martin played part of his career for the Cardinal with Tiger Woods and turned pro in 1995. He first sought use of a cart in 1997 when he went to the first stage of PGA Tour qualifying. After two lower courts ruled in Martin's favor, the tour appealed to the Supreme Court.

In 2001, the court ruled 7-2 that the Americans With Disabilities Act required the PGA Tour to accommodate Martin's leg ailment, and that doing so would not fundamentally change the game.

The tour argued that its case was not about Martin, but about the ability to set its own rules.

Martin's victories against the PGA Tour in lower courts enabled him to ride a cart at various levels. He won on the Nike Tour (now the Nationwide Tour) in 1998, and his 14th-place finish on the money list in 1999 granted him a PGA Tour card for the 2000 season.

But he finished 179th on the money list that year, dropping him back to the Nationwide Tour. He was never able to regain fully exempt status on the PGA Tour.

Although his plight was the subject of great debate -- golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer testified on the tour's behalf, and many argued that walking was fundamental to the sport -- Martin said nobody ever treated him poorly or showed him any animosity.

"The hardest part for me was all the recognition, and not always playing great," he said. "You had people following you; TV and interviews after every round when you shot 77 … that part was hard. You get this great opportunity, you have glimpses of doing well to justify it, but then you couldn't quite get over the hump, and you felt like the world was watching. That part was a challenge, the hardest part for sure.

"But I'm glad I went through it. I'm really glad I could help somebody else out."

Martin said he often had to fight the perception that giving him a cart would lead to numerous others getting the same opportunity. Several players wondered what would happen "once the floodgates had been opened." But the court's strict adherence to the ADA guidelines has kept that from happening.

Just as Martin predicted.

"I didn't see it happening any time soon," Martin said of another player with legitimate professional aspirations getting to use a cart. "Then when I learned about Erik … I didn't know he would need a cart, necessarily, but I knew he had a serious, serious issue. But he's in great shape. But you look at what his heart has to do, and he'd probably like to save it from pounding every second, so it makes a lot of sense for him. I am thrilled that what I went through can open a door for a worthy person. When some of the guys tried to bandwagon -- there were a couple of guys -- it was hard for me to get excited about it. But this guy is awesome. He can really play."

As for Martin, he rarely plays; maybe once a week with his Oregon players. Now 36, he took the head coaching job in May 2006 and guided the Ducks to the NCAA tournament last year in his first season.

They didn't fare too well in the Brickyard tournament last week, finishing 14th out of 15 schools -- although Martin's team was comprised of three freshmen and two sophomores, who love hearing his Tiger Woods stories. The youngsters also get a kick out of it if they can beat their coach, who averaged more than 288 yards per drive during his lone full season on the PGA Tour in 2000.

"He hits it a long way, and I don't know how he does it," said sophomore Isaiah Telles of Portland, Ore. "He's got all of his weight on one leg. He loads it all on his left leg, but he gets the job done. … When someone beats him, it's a highlight."

Martin joked that he'd have had no trouble on this day, after his players' lackluster performance. But the truth is, the pain persists, an achy annoyance that he confides has gotten worse since he stopped playing competitive golf.

The disorder restricts blood circulation in his lower right leg and puts tremendous pressure on his tibia when he walks. While playing, there was the constant danger of breaking the bone and the possibility of amputation.

This summer, Martin tried an experimental procedure that he had endured a few years ago that requires as many as 60 injections in an hour.

"It's not that bad, but it didn't give me any relief," he said. "So it's Advil. Lots of Advil. But it's not that big of a deal compared to what some people have to do."

For instance, Compton. His heart surgery May 20th was his second transplant; he had his first as a 12-year-old. Late last year, Compton suffered a near-fatal heart attack -- a sign that his transplanted heart was no longer working properly, hence the need for his third heart.

A star on the American Junior Golf Association circuit, Compton played for the University of Georgia and was ranked No. 2 in the nation as a sophomore. After turning pro in 2001, he played on the Nationwide Tour and won three times on the Canadian Tour. His best year on the Nationwide Tour was 2005, when he finished 72nd on the money list.

"I know his game, I know how talented his is, and you'd hate for that go to go to waste when a simple accommodation could help him out," Martin said. "And I think that's what the intent of the law was. I think it's great -- not just for the game of golf, but for people -- that there's a law out there that can serve its purpose and can help people.

"It's working, is what I'm saying. A guy can make his living with the talent God has given him, but he needs a little bit of help. Bring it on."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.