Casey Martin returns to Olympic with strong effort

The putt on the last hole hurt, and so did Casey Martin’s leg.

He limped off the final green uncertain of his chances of playing

on the weekend, though that didn’t seem to matter to the crowd

gathered on the hillside above.

They rose to applaud the effort, if not the score. Then they

watched as Martin left his golf cart behind and bounded up the

40-some stairs to the clubhouse, forgetting for a moment the price

his right leg might pay for it later.

He shot two respectable rounds on a brutally tough golf course,

not bad for a guy who hadn’t competed seriously for six years.

His rounds of 74-75 shouldn’t have been too surprising, because

the talent has always been there. It’s the leg that’s always been

the problem, though Martin wasn’t about to use it as an excuse.

”The biggest thing is actually just thinking like a great

player,” he said. ”That’s the challenge when you haven’t done it

and you have some bad shots that creep in there.”

Martin is 40 now, and his day job is being the golf coach at

Oregon, not chasing Tiger Woods in the majors. That he was able to

get through qualifying rounds and make the Open for the first time

since it was held here 14 years ago was remarkable enough, even if

he didn’t have a circulatory disorder that he thought by now might

have taken his right leg.

He engaged the PGA Tour in a court battle that went all the way

to the Supreme Court so he could ride in a cart and play

professional golf. But his career on the big tour lasted only a

year, and he became a golf coach after tiring of fighting to make

cuts on the Nationwide Tour.

This might be his last hurrah, though Martin isn’t about to

concede it. But this time he made sure he heard the applause, made

sure he would remember the support shouted out his way on every

fairway and green.

”It’s flattering to be here to get attention like this and as a

competitor I’m disappointed right now,” he said. ”These are

experiences that don’t come around very often, to get to play in a

U.S. Open in these conditions. So it’s a special week.”

Watching Martin hit a string of precision shots Friday was a

reminder of the talent that made him a teammate of Tiger Woods at

Stanford and got him a tie for 23rd when the Open was last played

here in 1998. Watching him limp from his cart to his ball and back

was a reminder that all that talent couldn’t overcome a bum

leg.

Without the cart he drove himself alongside his playing

partners, he would have had trouble even making 36 holes on an

Olympic Club course that is perched on the side of a sand dune.

Even with the cart, he’s still at a disadvantage against players

who can practice and play longer and without pain.

”That’s always a question,” Martin said when asked if he could

have walked the course. ”Yeah, if you put a gun to my head, sure.

But it wouldn’t be a lot of fun.”

Martin began the day with a reasonable chance of making the cut,

and his odds improved after playing the back nine – his front – in

even par. But he still had the toughest stretch of holes at Olympic

to play, and he seemed to tire as he made five bogeys on his

incoming nine to finish with a second round 75.

He had a par putt on the final hole that would have guaranteed

him a spot on the weekend, but the 18-footer slid just by.

”I would have liked to have made that last putt, I know that,”

Martin said.

For a guy whose only competition the last six years was a

charity scramble event or an occasional game with his players,

though, it was quite a run. Martin made it through local qualifying

in Washington in his first serious competition since becoming golf

coach, then faced sectional qualifying just two days after his

Oregon team reached the NCAA semifinals at Riviera in Los

Angeles.

It almost all unraveled when he couldn’t find his tee shot on

the fifth hole of the second round, but it was found at the last

section buried in mud and he made an improbable birdie that helped

him claim one of two open spots.

He says he may try qualifying again next year, but he also seems

to realize this may be it

”I wasn’t really happy with how I played today,” he said.

”But it’s wonderful competing. I haven’t done it in so long it

really feels great to get out there and grind away.”

An hour or so after his round, Martin went out to the first tee

again, this time to wish Woods well in his round. He admires Woods,

appreciates what he has done, but he can’t help thinking what he

might have done, too, had he had two good legs.

”Sure, yeah, I thought those things, absolutely,” he said.