Casey Martin continues to inspire

Casey Martin continues to inspire

Published Jun. 9, 2012 6:37 p.m. ET

Time marches on. And in the world of sports, if you aren't in the headlines or the Hall of Fame, you're probably locked away in the forgotten cabinet, dragged out only for holiday retrospectives, anniversary specials and sports radio trivia games.  

Remember Sid Bream? Die-hard Braves fans do, especially during the 20-year anniversary of "the slide," an improbable scoring play to win Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series. But other than that, the 11-year journeyman first baseman is a footnote.

Same with John Rocker, the reliever remembered vaguely for insulting Asian women and gays. And Bob May, the guy who came within one lipped-out birdie putt of upending the Tiger Slam.  

Up until last Monday you could have put Casey Martin into that category.

The trivially astute know that Martin was on the golf team at Stanford with Notah Begay and Tiger Woods; that he played 41 PGA tour events where he had one top-20 (the 2000 Tucson Open) and 126 Nationwide Tour events where he won once (the 1998 Nike Lakeland Classic). He also finished 23rd in the 1998 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, one shot ahead of Woods. Then he hung up the clubs, returned to his hometown of Eugene, Ore., and now serves as the men's golf coach for the Oregon Ducks.  

Few average golf fans knew his name before Monday, and even fewer could have picked his photo out of a lineup. But then Martin qualified for the 2012 U.S. Open, which starts next week, once again at The Olympic Club. In so doing, his story popped back up, a story that once had the fresh-faced Martin leading every newscast and filling every newspaper editorial column.

Today, his name is mentioned more often in Harvard Constitutional law classes than in golf clubhouses. But 15 years ago he was at the center of a firestorm that had everyone from President Bill Clinton to Rush Limbaugh chiming in.

In 1997, Martin, a clean-cut 25-year-old with a face out of "Leave It to Beaver" and the sort of "I love God and America" wholesomeness that most sports would have killed for, entered Tour qualifying school and played well enough to be eligible for the Nationwide Tour.

This would have been a yawner were it not for the fact that Martin had a degenerative bone disease called Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome. His right leg was withered and pale, shocking the first time you saw it as he seemed so wholly out of place on this tall, handsome, Christian boy-athlete.

Shock quickly gave way to sympathy, and then, after it sank in that Martin had become one of the best golfers in the world playing, in essence, one-legged, sympathy became teary-eyed awe. Few stories were more inspirational. This was a man who, at any moment, could take one wrong step, snap his tibia, and lose his leg. Yet, head to head with the best in the game, he had held his own. It was an achievement no less inspiring than Tom Dempsey setting records as an NFL kicker despite being born with half a foot, or Jim Abbott's success as a major-league pitcher despite having only one hand.

To many, Casey Martin was a hero.

Then, in one of the worst public relations blunders since New Coke, the PGA Tour let it be known that despite the progressive nature of Martin's disease, he would not be allowed to ride between shots in a golf cart. Forget that the Champions Tour took carts. That was, in the remarkably lame words of the tour, a "different product." According to the suits in Ponte Vedra Beach, PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour players had to walk, period.

Casey Martin could barely walk from his living room to his kitchen. Walking 72 holes of golf over four days, plus a pro-am or two every week was out of the question.

Given no other choice, Martin sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and gained a temporary injunction to play.

Just like that the Casey Martin case became the most important story in the country. Martin appeared on "Meet the Press," FOX News, CNN, and his story led on every network nightly newscast. Everyone from Oprah to NPR covered it. And in every case, footage appeared of Martin hobbling to and from his golf cart while hitting some incredible shots, his boyish face filled with determination.

Complicating matters, Martin won the first Nationwide Tour event he played in, shooting 19-under in Lakeland, Fla. to beat Steve Lamontagne in an event that wouldn't have made the back pages of most papers, even in Florida, were it not for Martin's lawsuit.

With cameras from all over the world rolling, Martin smiled and said, "I love to play golf, and if I don't have a cart, my leg gets so painful that it's not worth it. If I break it, I lose it. But I hope it all works out. I would love to make a career out of this."

Within minutes of Martin's victory in Florida, the tour put out a statement that read: "We congratulate Casey Martin on his win, just as we do the victor in all our events. But the fact remains that Mr. Martin participated and won while using a golf cart under the terms of a court order. We continue to assert that everyone who plays on the PGA Tour or Nike Tour should be subject to the same rules and regulations and that, further, the PGA Tour should retain the right to determine the conditions of competition, including requiring all PGA Tour and Nike Tour players to walk."

A week before going to trial, Martin told reporters that if he lost, not only would he lose his sole source of income and his dream, he would have to declare bankruptcy to keep from having to pay the tour over $1 million in legal expenses.

It seems like ancient history now, but at the time, golf had the nation riveted and divided in ways no one had ever seen. Former USGA executive director Frank Hannigan summed it up perfectly when he said, "Six months ago, the PGA Tour was everybody's favorite sports organization. Now it's the Manson family."

Few people remember the drama, and even fewer remember that Martin won, not just the lower court decision, but all his appeals, including one before the United States Supreme Court. Martin v. PGA Tour is still the only golf case the Supreme Court has ever heard.

Martin still has his leg. But in his words, "I don't play golf anymore."

He played last Monday, sinking a five-foot par-putt on the final hole of Emerald Valley Country Club in Casewell, Ore., to become one of 58 players to earn a spot in the U.S. Open through the qualifying process.  

Next week he will play The Olympic Club in a golf cart, just as he did in 1998. The game did not come to an end then, and it won't this time either.

"There really isn't any pressure on me," an older and slightly heavier Martin said after qualifying. "I'm not playing professionally. So I'm just going to wing it and have fun. I'm sure if I do well I'll want to compete. But I really don't have any expectations."

There are no more mantles for Martin to carry, no more principles for him to defend. This time, he can simply go out and have a good time playing the game he loves.

"I kind of want to have that idea of being pretty laid back while I'm there," he said. "I want to enjoy it rather than being overly intense about it."