This time around, few would deny Casey Martin a ride at the Open

June 12, 2012

Casey Martin is playing in a U.S. Open again. In a cart. With a lower right leg that's a cause for constant pain and nearly as much attention. The first time, in 1998 at Olympic, he was a fledgling touring pro, a Stanford graduate, a friend of Tiger Woods. This time, he's a 40-year-old golf coach at the University of Oregon just hoping to make the cut. Fourteen years have changed everything and nothing.
In the mid- and late '90s — when Bill Clinton was president and tech stocks made Wall Street a real-life version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? — the whole question of Casey and his cart briefly transfixed the world of sports. It seemed so important.

Casey sued the PGA Tour, arguing that he should be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, that the Tour could grant him reasonable accommodation — a buggy! — that would allow him to compete despite the incurable medical condition that was an unlucky part of his birthright.

Some of the Tour's biggest names (Tim Finchem, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Curtis Strange, Paul Azinger, even Tiger Woods) weighed in, either in court or in the court of public opinion, and said that walking is a fundamental part of the game. They all felt bad for Casey, but their message was that he should walk like everybody else or go home.

First, Casey won in court. Then he won on the golf course, first on the Nike Tour (now the Nationwide tour), then in the U.S. Open. (His 23rd-place finish at Olympic was a win in my book.) Along the way, he won over just about every person he met, with his intelligence, his toughness and his enthusiastic commitment to seeing Bigfoot. (Really.) And now almost nobody cares anymore if Casey uses a cart this week, especially since he's no longer trying to make a living playing tournament golf.

I'm not offering that preceding sentence as Gallup Poll science. What I'm really saying is that my friends don't seem to care. Curtis Strange, old-school hard-ass (keep it coming, Curtis!) said recently that he doesn't care anymore. Gary Nicklaus told Martin a while back that the Tour brass pressured Big Jack into testifying against the use of carts in PGA Tour play. I haven't seen any prominent person get on a soapbox and say this thing is an outrage.

There must still be plenty of people who think it's an affront to the sanctity of the game to have one player play by different rules. But many fewer than there were in the old century.

What changed? Casey Martin didn't change. He's still a golfer who can make the shots, but not the walk, that tournament golf requires. So what actually changed?

We changed.

We've become more tolerant (or so I'd like to think). The Sept. 11 attacks made us reassess the important from the trivial.

We elected a black president for the first time, and today when people are critical of Obama's performance, it has little to do with the color of his skin and more to do with the high price of gasoline.

Nobody cares if the secretary of state is a woman or a man, unless you have the view that women are more likely to keep us out of war.

In 1999, a Gallup Poll found that 35 percent of Americans supported gay marriage. Today that number is 50 percent. In 1994, less than one-third of the population said they knew a gay person well. Today that number is 60 percent. In general, the more you know people, the more sympathetic you are to their plight in life.

Curtis Strange got turned around on the Casey Martin case, he told the Contra Costa Times, by having lunch with the guy.

Many of us got turned around by seeing the astounding thinness of Casey Martin's leg, coming to understand his disability and recognizing that his case really is a special one. In his testimony way back when, Jack Nicklaus argued that giving a cart to Casey Martin would open the floodgates, but nothing of the sort happened. The ADA law makes great, compassionate sense: if reasonable accommodation can be made, it needs to be made.

On Monday, after playing a practice round at Olympic, Martin came into the U.S. Open press tent, but this time he did not have to make a case for why he needs a cart to play. Those days are over. Sure, he was asked about his old legal battles, but he mostly talked about the things golfers talk about, the state of his game, the course, Tiger Woods and that sort of thing.

– On his health: "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. 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."

– On Tiger: "Yesterday was the first day, first time I've seen him in many years, and so I can't speak to his game up close. I'm going to play with him tomorrow, I believe. But certainly watching him, some of the magic's coming back for him, and that's great for golf and great for everybody and him as well."

– On his lawsuit against the PGA Tour: "There certainly have been negative stories, or there's controversy, and there's two sides to every story. But I try not to focus on it too much, and I don't take it personally. I realize that there is another side to my story and people can certainly, we can agree to disagree. So I've really — I try to not major in that and try to just feel fortunate that there's a lot of people that are pulling for me. I get a lot of support out there from the galleries and trying to enjoy that."

– On what he learned at Olympic in '98: "The experiences here, what I took from the snapshots are, A, the stress of the U.S. Open. That was my only major I played in, and it was really different than other golf tournaments. So that's kind of what I've always held on to. … Then just the thrills. I made some putts that week, hit some shots. 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."

– On his goals for the week: "I'm trying to figure that out. I said jokingly to not shoot a million and to make contact. Which is sort of tongue in cheek, obviously. I would like to make the cut. I would like to get paid. Obviously there's a lot of money in this tournament and that would be fun. But that aside, 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. But I'm going to go compete, give it my all, and see what that means."
Back when Casey Martin and his cart first became a national story, I remember thinking that the Tour was doing the wrong thing, but only by way of technicality. I thought the Tour could not argue that walking is a fundamental part of the game while it permitted carts on the Senior Tour, as the Champions tour was then known. I was one of the walking snobs, like Jack and Arnold and Finchem. If you can't walk 18, you shouldn't be trying to play tournament golf.

I don't think that anymore. If your foot is in a cast because you slipped on ice, I don't think the Tour should give you a cart. You don't have a disability. You have an injury that will heal.

I'm not saying it's not complicated. It is. Anything with a lot of gray is. Jose Maria Olazabal, this year's European Ryder Cup captain and a two-time Masters champion, lost parts of several seasons in his prime because of arthritis in his feet that made walking very difficult. He said once that it never occurred to him to ask for a cart. I admire him for that. Would you have given him a cart if had he asked for one? I don't know.

But I do know that when I got to understand the severe nature of Casey Martin's disability, and came to understand that it was only getting worse, I suddenly became more compassionate about his issue, and so did most people. Is a cart an advantage for him, an advantage that comes at the expense of every other player in the field? No, it's not. All the cart does is give him a chance. That's part of who we are as Americans.

We like to give a guy a chance.