Achenbach: Casey Martin a model of dignity
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- He walks with a limp.
Okay, I’m not supposed to say it so directly -- at least not so early in a U.S. Open story -- because I’m told it smacks of insensitivity.
View images of Oregon's Casey Martin at the 2012 NCAA Men's Championship.
Regardless, let me repeat: He walks with a pronounced limp.
That’s exactly the point. Even though Casey Martin doesn’t walk normally, he hits golf balls more skillfully than most other humans on the planet.
Whatever hurdles blocked his path, Martin jumped them to become a ballstriking machine. His driver swing speed is in the 120-mile-an-hour range.
Today the 40-year-old Martin rarely is perceived as a man with a limp. Instead he is a man with a gift for golf. He is the exceptionally popular coach of the University of Oregon men’s golf team.
When he starts Thursday at 12:45 p.m. PDT in the first round of the 2012 U.S. Open, he will ride in a cart because almost 15 years ago he won a lawsuit against the PGA Tour. Martin wanted to ride, the Tour wanted him to adhere to its no-ride policy. The U.S. Supreme Court backed Martin.
The U.S. Golf Association immediately changed its policy to allow golfers with severe disabilities to ride in carts. In the 1998 U.S. Open here at the Olympic Club, Martin tied for 23rd (with a score of 291) while riding in a cart and negotiating his way through huge crowds.
This year will be easier. The USGA has assigned a cart caddie to accompany Martin and move the cart from each green to the next tee. Carrying the bag for Martin -- and walking -- will be Oregon assistant golf coach Brad Lanning.
Martin was born with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome in his right leg. The cause of this birth defect is unknown, but it has left Martin with poor circulation and a lot of pain.
In a dark moment, he admitted, “I didn’t know if I’d keep it.” And yet, 14 years after his U.S. Open debut at Olympic, he is back.
“It (the leg) definitely is a question,” he said. “I think I’m going to keep it as long as something drastic doesn’t happen. And that’s always been the fear. It’s still pretty fragile. So my leg compared to ‘98, it’s probably not quite as good just because it’s older, but it hasn’t deteriorated ... it goes in cycles, and there are days where I’m okay and I kind of get around and then there are days were something ... the switch turns and it’s quite painful.”
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What this has done for Martin’s golf game is force him onto his left side at address and during the swing. As a result, he could be the poster boy for the Stack & Tilt swing philosophy. His hallmark is fully compressing the ball, and the resulting sound is a deep, solid whack.
I keep picturing Martin, as the Oregon golf coach, making a recruiting visit. “It you can beat me,” he might say, “you’ll be ready for the Tour.”
But Martin is quiet, thoughtful and well-spoken. He is an attentive listener. He is extremely calm, which is another huge attribute for any golfer.
Never was this calm demeanor put to the test as it was in the June 4 sectional qualifier at Emerald Valley Golf Resort in Creswell, Ore.
Martin shot a 2-under 69 in the morning round of qualifying. After a 22-minute break for a sandwich, he returned for the afternoon round.
He started fast with birdies at 1, 3 and 4 to take the lead in the 37-player field. He remained 3-under for the round after seven holes. Then came the drivable par-4 8th, which would become the site of Martin’s Miracle.
In the morning, Martin flew his tee shot onto the green on the 300-yard dogleg 8th. He two-putted for birdie. He tried to do the same thing in the afternoon, but the wind had shifted and the temperature had dropped.
Martin’s tee shot was short and right. As many as 40 spectators looked for the ball -- I looked, too -- but nobody could find it. The search was concentrated on foot-high grass alongside the hole.
I timed the search on my watch. At five minutes, the search continued. About 10 seconds later, Martin announced he would return to the tee.
And, at virtually the same time, the ball was found in three-inch rough closer to the fairway. It was covered in mud. Even though the search appeared to exceed five minutes, there was no official clock.
Some observers speculated the ball had been run over by a golf cart. If Martin had touched his own ball, even with his cart, he would have been penalized one stroke.
However, other carts were in the area as well. It was unclear whether one of them had been parked on top of the ball. Ending all debate, rules official Pete Scholz determined that the ball had landed in the mud and popped out of its own indentation mark. There were no tire marks. There was no penalty.
Martin proceeded to punch his ball onto a slope near the green. He then pitched the ball from 80 feet, making a birdie 3 after he had been looking a double-bogey 6 squarely in the face.
“I just turned 6 into 3,” Martin said as he headed to the 9th tee. “How lucky can one guy be?”
Perhaps it was providence, or fate.
“Fate or faith?” asked Martin, who believes that a god, or a supreme being, has a plan for his life.
“I don’t know what that (the plan) is,” he added, “but I’m grateful to be here and see what’s in store.”
Martin built a three-stroke lead in the qualifier, then elected to play the last three holes in the dark. He bogeyed 16 and 17. On 18, he needed to two-putt from 45 feet for par to avoid a playoff. He did it.
There is something very special about this mighty Casey. He hasn’t struck out, not yet. Even if he did, I suspect he would do it gracefully and with dignity.