Fourteen years after Casey Martin made history as the first golfer to use a cart in the U.S. Open, he's returning to the hallowed Olympic Club to play in the same tournament – and he couldn't be more surprised.
Born with a condition that makes it painful to walk long distances, Martin has focused in recent years on his job as men's golf coach at Oregon. But after his unexpected victory in a local qualifier, he finds himself scrambling to prepare for one of the game's most celebrated tournaments.
“I don't quite know what my mindset should be,'' he said. “I played well in the qualifier by really not really caring too much. So I kind of want to have that idea of being pretty laid back while I'm there and enjoying it, rather than being overly intense about it.''
Martin, who won a landmark Supreme Court decision that allowed him to compete on the PGA Tour with his able-bodied counterparts, earned a coveted spot in the U.S. Open field when he made a 5-foot par putt on the final hole as the sun set on Emerald Valley Golf Club in Creswell, Ore., on Monday.
Although he hadn't played much at all in recent weeks because of the Oregon Ducks' postseason run, Martin made an off-the-cuff decision to play in the qualifier because it was close by and he really didn't have anything to lose.
“I do stay close to the game, and even though I don't compete anymore. I decided that because it was a qualifier – it is the U.S. Open, and it's true that it's open to anyone who can qualify – I would go for it,'' he said. “And lo and behold I made it.''
Tiger Woods jumped on Martin's victory, posting to Twitter: “Simply incredible. Ability, attitude and guts. See you at Olympic Casey.''
Others also praised Martin's accomplishment.
“It's incredible that he's still playing golf,'' two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said. “We overuse the word courage, but he has more courage than anyone else in the field. Good for him.''
Martin made history in 1997 when he filed a lawsuit against the PGA in federal court in Oregon for the right to use a golf cart during competition. The next year, after a six-day trial, U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin ruled in his favor, saying the tour failed to show how waiving its walking-only rule would fundamentally alter competition.
Martin qualified for the U.S. Open four months later. At The Olympic Club, he finished 23rd, just a stroke ahead of Woods, a former Stanford teammate.
“The whole week was pretty magical. I was under a lot of scrutiny because of my whole situation, the golf cart and the trial, and so there was a lot of media hullabaloo – which was fun, but also it can add to the pressure,'' Martin said. “So I remember being under a lot of pressure and feeling stressed, but I also remember having an incredible time. I played really well, the golf course was just incredible. It was one of the highlights of my golfing experience, to play on a stage light that big and to play well.''
The PGA would eventually appeal the case and it made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2001 that Martin had a legal right to ride in a cart between shots at PGA Tour events.
Martin secured a spot on the PGA Tour in 2000 and finished in the top 50 in five events, including a tie for 17th in the 2000 Tucson Open. But he didn't finish high enough on the money list to keep his card, and spent the next several years playing mostly on the Nike Tour, now known as the Nationwide Tour.
“I didn't have a great career in golf, from a success standpoint. I would have liked to achieve more but I had a few obstacles to overcome,'' he said. “So looking back I'm grateful I gave it a chance and was able to play as long as I did. As any golfer would attest, they'd like to do it forever and do it at a really high level, which I wasn't necessarily able to do.''
In 2006, Martin was hired as the head coach of the Ducks. This season, the team finished in a third-place tie in the NCAA Championships at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. It was the team's fourth trip to the national championships since Martin took over.
“It's been a good fit for me at Oregon,'' Martin said. “My total coaching skills I probably need to develop, because I've only been doing it a few years. But I've been able to recruit really well and have a good feel for what it takes to have a successful program. And I think some of those things have happened.''
Certainly his presence in the U.S. Open can only add to Oregon's profile. Martin was one of 58 golfers who qualified nationwide for the chance to play in the major.
Not bad for a guy who really hadn't played competitively for years.
“There really isn't any pressure on me. I'm not playing professionally. So I'm just going to wing it and have fun,'' he said. “I'm sure if I do well I'll want to compete. But I really don't have any expectations I'm going to win it.''