2006: Mighty Casey embraces his next challenge
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Inside the clubhouse at Eugene Country Club, the atmosphere is hot-chocolate cozy. Outside, it is cold and wet. Never mind. Packaging himself in a rainsuit, Casey Martin heads for the first tee.
Casey is at the bat. Diehard golf fans know the limp as vividly as they know the swing. He stutter-steps to the tee, then launches a drive into orbit around the 93rd rock from the sun.
Despite a right leg that won’t support his full body weight, the guy still has killer length. In 2000, his only full year on the PGA Tour, he finished sixth in average driving distance (288.3 yards) behind a basketball team of long knockers: John Daly, Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and Scott McCarron.
Martin, who turned 34 on June 2, has embarked on a new chapter in his golf life. On May 9, he was named men’s golf coach at the University of Oregon, replacing 68-year-old Steve Nosler.
Obviously he loves a challenge. After wrestling the Tour all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Martin prevailed in a 7-2 decision that affirmed his right to use a motorized cart in tournament play. And now this.
The book on the golfing Ducks was written in large type in 2006: First in the hearts of Oregonians, last in the Pac-10.
“I know I can help these kids – help them with golf, with school, with life,” he says. “I feel I have a lot of valuable experience. It’s time for me to give something back, to contribute to the growth of young golfers.”
Martin is forthright and believable. He is a plain-dealing man who speaks real life. He could become a coach who inspires great metaphors. Young golfers might run through a titanium wall for him.
It stops raining. The conversation focuses on Oregon weather.
“It isn’t Phoenix,” says Martin, who was born and raised in Eugene, “but it’s the right kind of environment for a wonderful all-around education. Besides, I think golfers can play too much golf. I’m a great believer in taking time off.”
The truth about the weather: Half the year it is perfect. Even during the imperfect half, temperatures remain mostly in the 40s and 50s. Winter rain can be an obstacle, but the Oregon team travels regularly to escape the moisture.
Martin has Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, often called Parkes-Weber syndrome. The degenerative disorder causes bleeding and pain in his lower right leg. The leg bones are fragile and easily could break. He wears a pressure stocking to help him stand and walk.
Meanwhile, there is a kid lurking inside this slightly damaged body. Martin is a bred-in-the-pond Ducks’ fan.
“I went with him to a U of O basketball game,” recalls Eugene Country Club superintendent Chris Gaughan, “and he was jumping up and down the whole game. If he could have gone out there and played, he would have done it.”
One of the ironies of his new position is that season tickets for Oregon football and basketball games, along with a membership to Eugene CC, come with the $55,000 salary. Long before he got the job, Martin already had the season tickets and the membership, thank you.
The kid in Martin is evident when he talks about his team. “I intend to work out with them,” he says. “I intend to practice with them.”
He was immersed in his golf career, playing the Nationwide Tour, when Stanford University contacted him three years ago about its men’s golf coaching job. He decided not to pursue the position, but a seed was planted.
After high school, despite his Oregon roots and the fact that some of his relatives helped establish the University of Oregon, Martin attended Stanford on a golf scholarship.
“If I had been a football or basketball star, I would have gone to Oregon,” he says, “but this was just golf. I didn’t think anybody would notice.”
They noticed. Martin and Notah Begay III were part of the Stanford team that won the national championship in 1994. The next year, when Martin was a senior, Tiger Woods arrived as a freshman.
Martin, Woods and Begay began putting for dollars one evening, and Martin was $25 up on Woods when darkness forced them to quit. Woods suggested they continue the next morning, and Martin eventually pushed his advantage to $190.
“You know how it is when you’re a kid,” Martin recalls. “You don’t really expect anybody to pay. But Tiger wrote me a check.”
Martin made several photocopies of the check. Then he cashed it.
In 1999, Martin finished 14th on the Nike Tour money list to qualify for the PGA Tour. He played 29 tournaments during the 2000 season, making 14 cuts and earning $143,246 in official money. He was 179th on the money list.
He went back to the PGA Tour Q-School, where he missed his card by one stroke.
“Casey would never say this,” reveals his brother, Cameron, “but I think his leg got more and more brittle, and he just couldn’t rotate to his right side. As a result, he couldn’t hit it quite as well as he used to. He always was such a pure ballstriker. He always had this God-given beautiful swing.”
Martin himself has seen the sign posts.
“I plan to play a few tournaments (including Nationwide Tour events this month in Chicago and Chattanooga),” he says. “I will continue to evaluate my game, but I’m ready to give everything to coaching.”
Cameron Martin played golf at UNLV before transferring to Oregon. He is his younger brother’s loudest cheerleader.
“My hope for Casey is that he finds something that allows him to express the same kind of passion he has always had for playing the game. I think coaching will allow him to showcase his skills and talents. He has learned a tremendous amount, and I know he can impart this to the kids.”
Eugene Country Club, which ranks 48th on Golfweek’s list of top 100 modern courses, is Oregon’s home course. This is where Casey Martin learned to play the game. Now it is where he will teach it.
Martin gets up-and-down from a greenside bunker for par on the final hole. He shoots 69.
The sun is warm and radiant. It might as well be Phoenix.