COLUMN: A winner just by playing in Open

2012-06-15T22:47:00Z COLUMN: A winner just by playing in OpenBy BRYAN BURWELL, Lee News Service JG-TC.com
June 15, 2012 10:47 pm  • 

SAN FRANCISCO — By the end of the Father’s Day weekend, there will be plenty of stories to tell at the U.S. Open. It will be all the usual stuff normally associated with the most unforgiving of all of golf’s majors. It will be about pain and suffering, anguish and heartbreak. It will be about simple survival in the face of so many championship dreams being crushed by the diabolical torture chamber that sadistic greenskeepers have conjured up at the Olympic Club.

None of them will measure up to Casey Martin just being there.

With its sloping, low-shaved greens that are as slick as glass, punitive rough that can hide small children and the wind and fog that can float into the Olympic Club on a moment’s notice, the Open is golf’s most demanding major tournament, traditionally creating maddening mental suffering to all those who dare to enter.

Whatever complaints most golfers have this week will pale next to the challenge in front of Casey Martin. Eleven years ago, Martin forced the curmudgeonly golf establishment to bend a bit to let him play. Tiger Woods’ old Stanford teammate suffered from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a rare circulatory disorder that has left him with a withered right leg, making it painful for him to walk. He asked the PGA Tour to let him use a cart to play. The Tour said no, so in 1997, Martin sued the Tour, and in 2001, after a four-year legal battle, the disabled golfer won his case when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal law requires a leveling of the playing field for the handicapped, even in pro sports.

“Unless you really know him, I don’t think people really have appreciation of how much pain he’s in,” said Woods. “ Just the everyday pain he lives with. He doesn’t show it, doesn’t talk about it, doesn’t complain about it, he just lives with it. I saw it in college (when) he was my roommate on the road a few times. I don’t know how he did it, to be honest with you. I just don’t know how he did it. For him to try and play the Tour, just try in itself is just amazing. And to get out here and play a few events and try to make a career out of it, it’s hats off to him.”

He’s 40 years old now and no longer dreams big championship dreams. On Thursday, he shot a first-round 4-over 74, but he followed that with a 5-over 75 to tie for 73rd and miss the cut by one stroke.

Martin came oh so close to fulfilling his modest goal of making the weekend cut.

When he left the game several years ago to become the golf coach at the University of Oregon, he remembered how pro legends like Jack Nicklaus testified against him. Old-school golf traditionalists complained that if he was allowed to ride on a cart, the game would go to hell in a handbasket. Of course, golf somehow survived after the Supreme Court ruling, and now, Martin is back for a little cameo role and being welcomed with open arms, just like he should have been all along.

“It’s been overwhelming, really,” Martin told reporters earlier this week. “I’m totally flattered. People have been coming up to me this week going, ‘Way to go, I’m so excited for you.’ You have to be so excited and I am. But there’s also this, in the back of your mind, the little fear factor of ‘I have to play this golf course.’ And I don’t play or practice like a lot of these guys do and yet I still want to compete. So there’s that borderline fear of, I don’t want to miss a shot. Those holes are just brutal. ... All that being said, for the greatest players in the game it’s a challenge, let alone for a disabled 40-year-old golf coach. But it’s also a thrill, what a challenge to get to go and try to do that and play those holes and play this whole golf course because it’s not like the last 12 are easy. It’s going to be just a huge challenge and hopefully I survive this week.”

During the sectional qualifier a few weeks ago, Martin thought he lost a ball on the third hole of the day. Martin, his caddie and several course officials were scouring the area to no avail, and just as Martin hopped in his cart to go back to the tee box and start all over again, an official moved his cart and Martin’s ball was sitting underneath the official’s cart. “I was getting ready to almost get out and go back and re-tee it (and) there the ball was,” said Martin.

Martin chipped his second shot to the side of the green, then holed another chip shot from 30 yards for a birdie.

“And that’s kind of when I thought, ‘OK, maybe something greater than just myself is going on here,’” Martin said. “It was a great day ... and it really was kind of a magical day for me to get here.”

Back in 2001 when he won his Supreme Court case, Martin said one day people were going to look back and say, “Why did we even fight him on this?”

That “one day” has arrived. Many of the dissenting voices that rose against him in the golf establishment have quietly faded away. As he cruised around Olympic in Thursday’s first round, Martin had to know he was right all along.

“I hope so,” he said. “I don’t like to be the center of controversy, and it kind of followed me for a long time there. But it’s not my nature to necessarily seek that out. But I am hopeful the way that I conduct myself and the way I play, the controversy fades and that you can just hopefully appreciate it (as) somebody just trying to pursue their dreams like anybody else and just trying to play this great game that we all love. Hopefully that will be the lasting impression of it.”

The lasting impression for me is his fighting spirit and an outlook that refuses to accept the role as someone to be pitied.

“You just look at him, he’s always so happy,” said Woods. “It’s very easy to go the other way and be very bitter, because of how uncomfortable he is on a daily basis. But I think that’s what makes him special. That’s what makes him so different than everyone else. He has such a strong will and such a strong spirit.”

Bryan Burwell is a Lee News Service columnist. He can be reached at bburwell@post-dispatch.com or (314) 340-8185.

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