Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 7, 2012

Casey Rides Again

Even as the PGA Tour makes its annual stop in Memphis this week, the attention of the golfing world is already turning to San Francisco. That’s where the U.S. Open will be conducted next week at the venerable Olympic Club’s Lake Course. Of the four major men’s tournaments the U.S. Open is easily the most democratic. The Masters has the smallest field and the PGA Championship is restricted to professionals. As their names imply, next month’s Open Championship in Great Britain and next week’s U.S. Open offer both professionals and amateurs the opportunity to play their way into the tournament. But in an effort to strengthen its field the Open Championship has sharply reduced the number of spots available to local qualifiers; while at the U.S. Open typically about half the 156-man field gains entry via at least one round of qualifying. Of that number generally 30 or so make it through both 18-hole local and then 36-hole sectional qualifying tournaments.

Each year, as the two stages of qualifying reduce some 9,000 original entrants down to the final field, compelling stories emerge, and 2012 has been no exception. There is 17-year old California high school junior Beau Hossler, who qualified for the second year in a row. Hossler is one of six amateurs in the field. There is 42-year old teaching pro Dennis Miller from Youngstown, Ohio. Miller had only alternate status after his local qualifying round, and needed three players to withdraw from the sectional tournament played on two courses near Columbus. When that happened Miller teed off, and 36 holes later found himself one of four golfers in a playoff for three tickets to San Francisco. On the fourth playoff hole his 20-foot birdie putt hung on the lip of the hole. Miller waited, and waited, and finally turned away in despair that he had come up just short. So he didn’t actually see his ball fall in the cup, but just then it did.

U.S. Open qualifying also necessarily includes stories of failure. None this year was more poignant than that of Lee Janzen. A two-time Open champion, Janzen was the winner the last time the USGA brought the national championship to The Olympic Club. Winning the tournament gives a player a ten-year exemption into future Opens, but Janzen’s Sunday rally was in 1998, fourteen years ago. He won’t be going back to the scene of his triumph after finishing four shots adrift of the qualifying number at the sectional in Memphis.

But the most remarkable story to come out of this year’s qualifying, and certainly one of the most unexpected, is that of the college golf coach who won medalist honors at the tournament in Creswell, Oregon. When Lee Janzen won the 1998 U.S. Open he wasn’t the only one making headlines; and unlike Janzen, Casey Martin is going back to The Olympic Club.

Martin was a talented junior golfer whose collegiate career at Stanford partially overlapped that of Tiger Woods. He was named to the all Pac-10 golf team three times, and was a member of Stanford’s NCAA championship team in 1994. This despite the fact that he suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a rare congenital medical condition which caused the blood vessels in his right leg to fail to form properly. The extremely painful and degenerative condition makes it virtually impossible for Martin to walk 18 holes. While he was able to use a cart in college, and could have done so on some of the lesser professional mini-tours, Martin’s goal after turning pro in 1995 was to play on the PGA Tour. In the pursuit of that goal he ran headfirst into the Tour’s rule that all players must walk the course.

Martin sued the Tour in November, 1997, and almost immediately won an injunction allowing him to use a cart while the case proceeded. A 46th place finish at the Tour’s Q-School that December won him a place on the developmental Nike Tour (now the Nationwide Tour). Just one month later he fired a final round 69 to win the Nike Lakeland Classic by one stroke. In February 1998 U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin ruled in favor of Martin, finding that the Tour had failed to show how waiving the walking-only rule for him would fundamentally alter the competition.

While the Tour’s appeal of the lower court ruling worked its slow way through the federal court system, Martin continued to play, riding a specially designed one person cart. He qualified for that June’s U.S. Open, and became the first person to ride a cart in the history of the tournament. As the debate raged about whether being able to ride gave him an advantage over the rest of the field, Martin played commendably, eventually finishing in a tie for twenty-third, eleven shots behind Janzen and just one back of his former college teammate Woods.

It would be almost three years later before the U.S. Supreme Court had the final word on the legal battle, affirming the lower court ruling by a vote of 7-2 in May 2001. Meanwhile Martin finished 14th on the Nike Tour’s money list in 1999, giving him fully exempt status on the PGA Tour for the following season. That would prove to be his only year of playing at golf’s highest level. He finished 179th on the 2000 PGA Tour money list, costing him his card and relegating him back to the Nike Tour. He continued to play on the developmental tour, with decreasing success, until 2006 when he was named head coach of the University of Oregon’s men’s golf team.

Martin hasn’t played competitively since become the golf coach for the university located in his hometown. Now forty years old, this year he was one of the 9,006 golfers who sent in their entry forms to USGA headquarters. He did so without any expectations, but wanted to give it a shot since the tournament was returning to the course where he had made his one appearance in a major. Yet he and five others made it through local qualifying at Royal Oaks Country Club in Vancouver, Washington the first week in May. Then last Monday he was part of a thirty-seven player field at the sectional qualifier at Emerald Valley Golf Club. The smallest field of all the sectional tournaments meant that only two golfers would advance to San Francisco. Martin carded a 69 in his opening round to sit tied for the lead. Lightning and rain interrupted the afternoon round. Martin was playing in the final threesome, and came up the 18th in deepening darkness. A two-putt par from 45 feet to a hole that he could barely see in the gloom gave him another 69 and a 36-hole total of 4-under par, one better than his two playing partners.

So Martin and his one-man cart are headed back to The Olympic Club’s Lake Course. Many years after being told that he might one day face amputation of his withered right leg, and a decade and a half after the PGA Tour sought to block him from its fairways, Martin is still doing what logic says he should never had been able to do in the first place; playing golf at a surprisingly high level. Martin’s story is about overcoming disability with equal measures of skill, will, and courage. He isn’t going to win the U.S. Open. In all likelihood he won’t make the 36-hole cut. But there are many different ways to define victory. Next Thursday afternoon at 12:45, when he hits his opening drive on the 520 yard par-4 first hole at the 2012 U.S. Open, Casey Martin will have already won.

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