The best story at this U.S. Open isn’t Tiger Woods.
It isn’t defending champion Rory McIlroy.
It isn’t major-deprived world No. 1 Luke Donald.
It isn’t Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson, Jason Dufner or any of the so-called favorites taking on The Olympic Club.
The best story of the 2012 U.S. Open is – as he himself calls it – “a disabled 40-year-old golf coach.”
Funny thing, it was also one of the best stories at the last U.S. Open at Olympic in 1998.
Casey Martin will ride again in his golf cart at the same scene of his only other career major championship appearance 14 years ago. Even the people who fought in court against him all those years ago can’t help but cheer for Martin this time around.
“It has been overwhelming really,” said Martin of the attention he’s received since making it through local and sectional qualifying to earn a return trip to the U.S. Open. “It kind of feels like 1998 all over again with a lot of the attention and it’s great. I’m totally flattered.”
For anyone who’s forgotten Martin’s story, he was the former teammate of Tiger Woods at Stanford who had to sue the PGA Tour for the right to use a golf cart. Martin suffers from a birth defect in his right leg known as Klippel Trenaunay Weber syndrome, a circulatory disorder that leaves the threat of losing his leg looming with just one misstep.
After Martin turned pro in the late ’90s and earned status on the Nationwide and then PGA Tours, the game’s biggest heavyweights lined up against him arguing that allowing Martin to ride in a cart was a competitive advantage and would open the floodgates of golfers seeking an edge by not walking.
Martin, of course, won an injunction in 1998 and eventually his lawsuit in 2001. For the record, nobody else has ever sought the Martin cart exemption on tour since.
But it was a huge story in 1998 when Martin won his first career start as a Nationwide Tour member and later qualified for the U.S. Open. The USGA honored the court injunction to let Martin ride at Olympic, and his every “move” was watched as he tried to negotiate the hills, ropes and crowds of Olympic.
“Had they said no, it doesn’t work for us, I would have had to have sued them as well,” Martin said. “Which I’m grateful I didn’t have to.”
Martin handled it from beginning to end like a champ, finishing an impressive 23rd in golf’s toughest test.
“I made some putts that week, hit some shots,” he said. “To hear the roar of the crowd like that you don’t really get that on the mini tours obviously or the Nationwide Tour, you only get that at the really big tournaments. To experience that a little bit was a lot of fun. I remember that.”
Fast forward 14 years. Martin retired from professional life and became the head coach at the University of Oregon in his home state. He’s around the game all the time, coaching a squad that reached all the way to the NCAA semifinals just two days before final U.S. Open qualifying. He hits balls a few days a week but rarely plays for score.
But last week in sectional qualifying in Oregon, Martin shot the lowest score to qualify. Racing to finish in the dark, he sank a 5-foot putt on the last hole to avoid having to play off with one of his own Oregon players and another from rival Oregon State for a spot at Olympic.
“I had a wonderful experience here in ’98 and I thought it would be fun to try to maybe get back,” he said. “It worked out in my schedule with recruiting and coaching that I could make it to the first stage up in Washington and then the second round was right in my backyard at Emerald Valley. So it kind of worked out that way quite nicely. And here I am.”
He’s here playing a practice round with his old teammate Woods on Tuesday and Wednesday. He says he might even give Tiger a chance to win back the $192 he lost as a college freshman in putting contests with the Stanford senior.
“He kept trying to push the envelope and I kept winning,” Martin said. “ And he brought me a check. And it says to Casey Martin from Tiger Woods, $192. So I Xeroxed it, sent it home, my mother cashed it but then she put it in the scrap book so it’s official you can come track it down. It happened.”
Now Woods has 72 career wins and 14 major titles, including three at the U.S. Open. Martin still has that one lone Nationwide victory in Lakeland, Fla., and a good job.
And he still has his right leg, which he says “just feels really old.”
“I’m 40 now and so this is at that point where I didn’t know if I would ever really be able to keep my leg,” he said. “So it’s not great. When I wake up I feel it. When I get out of the golf cart I feel it. When I travel with the team and travel down here, I definitely feel it. But it’s just that’s always going to be the case. And so I’m not complaining, it’s hanging in there. But I’m not going to be running a marathon either.”
While Woods won his last major on a broken leg and worn out knee in 2008, Martin just wishes he could make the cut and not embarrass himself this week.
"I want to make it clear I really am excited to be here,” he said. “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. ... For the greatest players in the game it’s a challenge let alone for a disabled 40-year-old golf coach.
“I’m just going to go out there and just compete. I don’t get to compete much and so I’ve gone from basically nothing to the pinnacle of golf, which is a lot to take in emotionally and mentally. ... I’m going to take whatever I get and consider this a great experience.”
That disabled old coach is the most inspirational story going this week – just like he was 14 years ago.