Commentary

Casey Martin seeks Olympic return

Updated: May 30, 2012, 2:58 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

Several years had passed since Casey Martin last filled out the entry form, and even he had forgotten about the part for which he was largely responsible: playing in the U.S. Open with a disability.

Martin, of course, long ago sued the PGA Tour and won the right via the Supreme Court to ride a golf cart in competition because of a degenerative birth defect that to this day makes it difficult for him to walk.

Casey Martin It was one of the best weeks of my life and I couldn't wait for it to be over.

-- Casey Martin, on playing the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, his only career major championship appearance

It was never going to be easy for anyone to get a cart in competition, having to prove very specifically why one was necessary. Martin always had argued this point, yet here he was, the memories flooding back, the spot where all the documentation was required.

He was pleased and perturbed at the same time.

"It's great that it's on there,'' said Martin, who will turn 40 on Saturday. "And it's great that it is that involved. You've got to have a doctor and a lot of people prove you're legit in that way.''

Of course, Martin is pretty well known for just that. So he called Mike Davis, executive director of the United States Golf Association. Did Martin really need to provide all this information?

"He said, No worries, you'll get a pass on that,'' Martin said, chuckling. "They've taken care of me, which was nice.''

Martin, now the golf coach at the University of Oregon, has fond memories of the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where he played his one and only U.S. Open in 1998 -- riding a cart.

That was the impetus for trying to get back there, even though he rarely plays competitively these days, save for a few hard-fought grudge matches against the very players he coaches.

Martin made it through an 18-hole local qualifier by shooting 70 in Vancouver, Wash., on May 7, but now a big test looms: 36 holes on Monday at Emerald Valley Golf Club in Creswell, Ore., where he will be among 37 players competing for likely just one or two spots in the Open.

"My game is good at times,'' Martin said before his team competes in this week's NCAA championships. "I don't know how I'll handle the nerves. Golf and competitive golf are quite the different story. Competitive golf I really don't know. I just haven't played enough. I'm going to find out [Monday] with a big carrot involved. I'll see how I hold up.''

Martin was born with an affliction called Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, which limits blood flow in his lower right leg.

It didn't keep Martin from earning a golf scholarship to Stanford, where he was a two-time All-America and teammates with Notah Begay and, for a year, Tiger Woods.

After Martin turned professional in 1995, his condition worsened to the point that it became more and more painful to walk. Still an accomplished player, he knew that pursuing his dream to play on the PGA Tour would all but end if he couldn't take the pressure off his right leg.

So he fought for the right to use a golf cart, his case going all the way to the Supreme Court. The PGA Tour challenged Martin on the basis that walking is an integral part of the game. Martin argued that very few, if any, golfers would meet the criteria for needing one under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

[+] EnlargeCasey Martin
Getty ImagesWhen Casey Martin qualified for the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, he was allowed to use a cart after suing for that right all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"As far as the highest level, the PGA Tour, it wasn't realistic to think there would be a lot of disabled golfers competing at that level,'' Martin said. "That was always a curious argument that it would change the game. Having said that, Erik Compton [who has had two heart transplants] rode a little bit [but not now]. There will be somebody who might use it, but it won't be a daily or even a yearly circumstance.''

Martin won an injunction to use a cart in competition and at PGA Tour Q-school while his case ran through the court system. He made it onto the Nationwide Tour in 1998 and won an event in Lakeland, Fla. Later that year he qualified for his first -- and so far only -- major championship, the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.

For Martin, the scene was somewhat overwhelming. He played a Monday practice round with Woods and had never seen so many people on a golf course.

"There was a lot more media attention following our group compared to a regular Monday practice round,'' Woods recalled. "But for us, it was like old times back in college.''

Martin appreciated the camaraderie and friendship offered by Woods, but the tournament was all Martin could handle -- and he handled it quite well.

He played the first two rounds with Jose Maria Olazabal and tied for 23rd in the tournament -- a shot behind Woods and a shot ahead of Vijay Singh. Martin ended up 2 shots short of qualifying for the 1999 Masters.

"It was definitely a whirlwind,'' Martin said. "The biggest thing was the stress. That's not what the elite professional athlete will tell you. It was the most stressful week I ever had in golf. I had never played in front of 50,000 people.

"I had some attention because of the course experience and playing, but not to that extent. It seemed like they were following me a little bit. You have that pressure, and then you have the pressure of the golf course. It's not normal golf. It's so difficult, so intimidating.

"Apart from the cameras and the security there was the pressure of the golf course and what was at stake. That's what I remember. It was one of the best weeks of my life, and I couldn't wait for it to be over.''

Martin made it to the PGA Tour in 2000, and he was unable to retain his card, never to get back. He ended up playing in just 41 PGA Tour events, with his tie for 23rd at the Open one of two top-25 finishes. He also played in 126 Nationwide Tour events, where he kept full status through 2003.

By 2006, after failing to advance through Q-school on a few occasions, he accepted the coaching job at Oregon.

"I never felt like I lived up to my expectations,'' he said. "I wanted to achieve more. I have some regret. But I do enjoy doing what I'm doing very much. And I'd never be coaching if I didn't have some of those experiences. That led me to this job.

"I'm able to share with guys. I really coach from my failures and what I would have done differently and what I learned. It was a great springboard for what I do in coaching. So no regrets there. Yes, I would have loved to have played the tour more. I love golf and loved competing. I would have loved to have had more success.''

And yet, here was a guy who could barely walk, who routinely bombed drives 300 yards with a bad right leg, and who forever will be famous for playing a sport at a high level despite a disability.

"It's phenomenal what he has to endure on a daily basis,'' Woods said. "It's just incredible pain and discomfort he has to overcome. It's like having a bad, sharp toothache that never goes away.''

Martin said the less walking he does, the better his leg feels, although it is not healing or getting better. Lots of golf practice does not help. Neither does constant travel or cold weather. He said amputation remains a possibility.

But for now, Martin is dreaming of other possibilities, of enduring the 36-hole qualifier on Monday and playing in the U.S. Open.

Just getting to San Francisco would be one more part of an amazing story.

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

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com