Take note, U.S. Open competitors (and golfers in general): Casey Martin, a 40-year-old disabled golf coach for the University of Oregon, deserves even more props than he already does, if that’s possible.
Martin got off to a rough start, jumping on the bogey train and playing the first six holes at five-over par. He rallied in very difficult, windy and cold conditions in the later afternoon to post a four-over 74 in the first round at Olympic Club.
Olympic is an extremely challenging golf course and the U.S. Open setup takes it to another level — one some find “unfair” or “over the top” or “too hard.”
Take your pick.
Well, if you feel the U.S. Open is “too hard,” then guess what? Don’t play in it and don’t sign up for the qualifier. I know at least one Tour winner who has skipped it the last three years because he says half-jokingly that he’s “not good enough.”
Guess what? Man up and stop whining. Take a moment and just try to imagine what Martin has to go through to play a round. You have no idea. Put things in perspective and remember how lucky you are to play pain-free (at least most of the time). Besides, everyone has to play the same course. There are going to be iffy pins and things that are “unfair” or make you go “WTF?”
It’s almost a sadistic experience, but you’re playing in the effing U.S. Open. And if you don’t like it, there are plenty of alternates that would love your spot in the field.
Again, Casey Martin, a part-time golfer and full-time golf coach who prepared for the major championship by playing in BBQ circuit scrambles, not only qualified for the U.S. Open at Olympic fourteen years after he placed T23 here in ’98, but he managed to post a 74 on Thursday.
“I think it’s been five or six years since I’ve been in a legit tournament that you would actually say, hey, this is a golf tournament,” said Martin on Monday in his pre-tournament press conference. “A lot of barbecue circuits, a lot of scrambles, let me tell you. I played a lot of scrambles. And I did ‑‑ twice before my preparation for this was playing in a Young Life scramble and an Oregon Club scramble.
“So that’s I guess how you prep for a U.S. Open. You play golf courses from about 6200 yards in a scramble.”
Admittedly, Martin was extremely nervous on the first tee on Thursday afternoon.
“I tried not to be,” said Martin after his round. “I tried to realize that there’s really not much pressure on me, but it didn’t work…the first five or six holes were a stress. Obviously they were really hard, but I missed a couple putts and did some stuff that wasn’t great. But fortunately the birdie on 7 settled me down and I was able to play nicely after that.”
I’ve observed him walk with a limp and practice over the last few days and I’m trying not to look like I’m staring, but if it does, it’s only because I’m in awe and so inspired by his tenacity and heart. At his press conference on Monday, I just sat back and soaked it in. He was everything I expected him to be like: charismatic, candid, self-deprecating, funny, likeable, you name it.
Martin himself admitted to feeling fearful of playing the demanding golf course. The guy lives and plays golf in incredible discomfort because he was born with a rare circulatory condition in his right leg that left him disabled. He’s in constant pain. Getting in-and-out of the cart he rides during rounds (which he fought the PGA Tour in a lawsuit that reached the supreme court) isn’t easy for Martin, let alone walking and swinging a club.
Martin hadn’t felt nerves like he did on the first tee on Thursday in a very long, long time. The sectional qualifying is one thing, but the U.S. Open is another, especially for someone who hasn’t competed in 5-6 years. It’s hard to deal with the emotions that you used to be able to manage after such a long time. At the same time it’s kind of like riding a bike, except this is a major championship and Martin wasn’t sure he’d still have his leg 14 years after playing in his first U.S. Open in ’98 here.
“I’m trying not to be overly dramatically that way other than that’s how I feel, it’s just really really stressful,” Martin told reporters. “Especially when I’m not used to playing in front of people and there’s people and then the fairways are really tight and the greens are so tough. It’s just everything combined I just, it’s overwhelming at times, but you just got to kind of take a deep breath and just try to (calm down).”
To see this man grind it out in the cold, gusty conditions late Thursday afternoon and beat almost 100 other players who aren’t disabled sparked goosebumps up my spine. Just watching him and hearing him talk is incredibly inspiring. I can’t explain it, but even if you’ve seen him on TV, then you probably know what I mean.
How did he feel physically after the round?
“Okay,” he replied.
Which means “awful,” but I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. Even though he’s riding in a cart, there are still some hills he has to walk up (and trust me, the course is a hike — I had a few people give me some strange looks because I was out of breath all day…which is partly due to a chronic injury).
I’m not sure many expected him to break 80, but I think we’ve learned with Martin that he has more passion and grit than the average person can fathom. Who knows if Martin’s health and game can hold up another 18 holes at Olympic, but if anyone can do it, he can. Now, wouldn’t that be something?
Martin is paired in the first two rounds with the other big Cinderella story at sectional qualifying 42-year-old director of golf, PGA club pro Dennis Miller and 19-year-old amateur Cameron Wilson.
“We’re all fish out of water I think as far as this level,” said Martin.
This is a little random, but I’ve been thinking about Casey Martin’s story and meaning to write something more thoughtful ever since he qualified. So here we go.
Believe it or not — in ’98 I didn’t watch very much golf on TV. I was 15. I practiced every day after school ’til dark. I played more tournaments than the LPGA currently has on its schedule throughout the year. As a teenage girl, the last thing I wanted to do in my free time was to watch other people play golf. In turn, I’m rusty with my golf history in that department. However, there are a few memories — especially from 1998 — that stand out.
One was Casey Martin’s lawsuit against the PGA Tour and his case, along with hearing about the condition of his leg, and then seeing him ride in the cart in between shots at the U.S. Open.
I also remember watching Tiger Woods for the first time in real life at the ’98 PGA Championship at Sahalee and being traumatized to see THE Tiger Woods throw clubs, curse and act like a chump. Which, I might add, was truly scarring and shocking. I recall seeing Vijay Singh play the 18th hole and win, along with him hoisting the trophy on 18 during the presentation.
Most of all, I remember Tiger’s former caddie Mike “Fluff” Cowan trying to give away Tiger’s ball after the third round to kids waiting alongside the walkway after 18. I was one of them, but bigger than the younger boys who were in better position. They kept dropping the ball, though. Fluff kept going out of his way to pick it back up and try again. The third time, it landed in my hands.
But I digress, Martin’s story and case inspired me. I felt sympathetic and compassionate. I didn’t see what the big deal was. As a competitive junior golfer at the time, I understood that walking is an integral part of the competition (well, kind of), but that’s not the issue with Martin. He has a birth defect that prevents him from walking 18 holes, no less in general.
It’s not like he sprained his ankle or has a torn ligament in his knee. And I guarantee that not a single player — no matter how injured they are — would try to take advantage of Martin’s successful lawsuit against the PGA Tour to ride in a buggy at a tournament. No one wants to be *that* person. No competitive athlete or golfer wants special treatment or their peers to see them as having an advantage, unless it’s absolutely 100% justified and necessary — which was Martin’s case.
Actually, the whole point is Martin’s not even getting an advantage on the field.
It’s funny looking back on how controversial the case was back in ’98. Those who fought Martin publicly and haven’t apologized since then should be ashamed of themselves. Actually, as a society, we should feel ashamed that it was even an issue. I understand where the Tour was coming from and the fears this would open the floodgates of some sort, but that was never going to be a problem. Instead, the powers-that-be chose to bully a disabled Casey Martin, who has more guts and tenacity than half the tour combined.
Hindsight is 20/20, but if I was able to understand the situation at 15, then…well, yeah. Point is, this was not about protecting the integrity of the game. It was simply workplace discrimination. Think about it.
(AP Photo/Ben Margot)