Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Catching up with Casey Martin, who is coaching golf in Oregon

From Scott Ostler's column in The San Francisco Chronicle. (Thanks to Suzanne for the tip about this article.)

In 2000, Casey Martin found himself serving as grand marshal of a parade he wanted no part of. On the PGA Tour that year, Martin was the guy in the golf cart.

He has a congenital circulation problem in his right leg that prevents him from walking a course, so he asked the PGA to allow him to ride in a cart. The PGA reacted as if Martin had asked to drive a Sherman tank.

That's a fitting analogy, because a figurative war ensued. The PGA fought Martin with a battalion of lawyers, and with testimony from Jack Nicklaus and lesser gods.

While waging the fight he eventually would win in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001, Martin was allowed to use a cart. He had long dreamed of being on the PGA tour, but he was now more like a weird appendage to it, especially with all the attention he and his cart received.

Martin recently told Golf Digest, "When we go to heaven, we will all be whole. We'll all have perfect bodies, physical ones. I don't know if there will be golf - the Bible sort of hints against it - but no way will there be golf carts."

I caught up with Martin on Tuesday by phone from his home in Eugene, Ore. He is starting his third year as head golf coach at the University of Oregon.

Martin still plays golf - riding in a cart - and beats his student-athletes. Most of the time. He also plays his grand piano, plays a little poker, works on a new golf Web site, studies Bigfoot (seriously), deals with constant pain, and wonders how much longer he can keep his leg.

One thing he wanted to make clear is that when he talks about his leg, he is not complaining. I followed the Martin story with great interest in 2000, and there was no whining involved. Not by him, anyway.

"Believe me, and I mean this seriously," Martin said, "people have a lot worse to deal with than I deal with. Yeah, I've got a bad leg and it hurts and I have to make some tough decisions at times, but there are people out there with a lot heavier stuff."

What made Martin's disability newsworthy is that even with the bum leg, for one season, he gave Tiger and Phil and the boys a run for their money.

"My year on the tour, the first half was some of the best golf I've ever played," Martin said. "I just kind of choked under the gun a few times. I think I had maybe three or four tournaments where I was in the top 10 going into the final round and I just couldn't seal the deal, and I think that, emotionally, kind of weighed on me, and I struggled at the end of the year.

"I was close. There were times out there where I really felt good about my game, but I just couldn't quite emotionally and mentally get over the hump."

Martin finished 179th on the money list in 2000 and lost his tour card. He played six more seasons on satellite tours and, after making $1,328 in '06, he retired.

What comes through clearly while talking to Martin is that he enjoys life, still loves golf, and isn't bitter about the leg, or that he had to wage a darkly comical fight for his right to hit a ball with a stick.

Nicklaus testified in court that the cart gave Martin an advantage and could open a door for many other disabled golfers, and the tour could be compromised. Nicklaus' son later told Martin that Jack had been pressured by the PGA to testify.

Even Tiger Woods, Martin's Stanford teammate on the 1994 NCAA championship team, didn't spring to Martin's defense. I asked Martin if that disappointed him.

"It wasn't a big deal. I never asked for his help, I never called and said, 'Hey, dude, I really need your help.' I'm sure if I'd pleaded with him, he would have responded, but I really didn't want any help," he said, adding that if his case "stood up on its own and was legally right, I wanted to do it. If not, then I wouldn't have done it. I never wanted to make it a political deal. I never wanted it to be a big controversy, it just kind of happened."

Actually, the bad leg helped Martin become a great golfer in the first place. As a kid, his ambition was to become a brain surgeon, but one way to deal with the constant pain was a sort of self-hypnosis - pounding golf balls for hours. The skill he developed earned him a ticket to Stanford, where his golf success - and the intellectual intimidation of Stanford - steered him away from medicine and toward a golf career.

When Martin retired from pro golf, he assumed he would get relief from his leg pain. Instead, it got worse. For two years, the pain intensified.

"Knowing I've stopped playing and now my leg's even worse, I was kind of really thinking hard, like I might need to take it," he said, adding that he's "content" with amputation but doesn't want to "rush it."

"But for the last few months I've really had a reprieve, I'm not in as much pain, it's kind of taken some of the urgency of those thoughts away. You know, I've always figured I wouldn't have my leg forever."

The amputation, if and when, would be above the knee. Martin has paid close attention to medical advances, especially as applied to wounded soldiers from the war in Iraq. He has allowed himself to daydream of someday playing competitive golf again (Legends Tour?) with a prosthetic leg.

Martin's leg doesn't make anything easy, not even a decision about the leg.

Still, he seems like a remarkably upbeat and stable fellow - with one odd hobby: Martin has studied the Bigfoot phenomenon. He has talked to eyewitnesses and hopes someday to encounter the 9-foot-tall ape man somewhere in the Oregon wilderness.

"Hey," Bigfoot probably will say, "you're the guy in the cart."