SAN FRANCISCO — Casey Martin has never allowed himself to look too far into the future.
Even looking back, it is no less amazing to see him and his cart back at The Olympic Club, riding between shots during a practice round Monday at the U.S. Open, then walking painfully back to the cart with a limp that has become as much a signature for him as a fist pump for Tiger Woods.
Martin could not have predicted 14 years ago when he left the U.S. Open after his historic ride that he would still be competing against the best in the world. He gave up tournament golf six years ago and took over as golf coach for the Oregon Ducks.
He could not have predicted he would still even have a right leg.
“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,” said Martin, who suffers from a rare circulatory disorder that led him to sue the PGA Tour for a right to use a cart. “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. 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.”
Running a marathon seemed more plausible than Martin playing another U.S. Open — at Olympic Club, no less.
The only competition Martin has had over the past six years was an occasional game with his players, or a charity event that often featured a scramble format on short golf courses designed for amateurs. But with Olympic hosting another U.S. Open, he figured it was worth a shot.
King Martin recalls his son telling him he thought he would enter the U.S. Open.
“As a USGA member, I got a USGA hat in the mail,” the father said. “I put it up in my office at home, let it sit there, clinging to that dream. It has a little more meaning to me right now. This is a godsend, I can tell you that.”
It’s a script even Hollywood would have a hard time believing.
His coaching schedule allowed Martin to go through local qualifying in Washington, and in his first serious competition since he became a golf coach, Martin made it through. The sectional qualifying last week was two days after Oregon reached the NCAA semifinals at Riviera. On little sleep, Martin was on his way to claiming one of two spots for the U.S. Open when he couldn’t find his tee shot on the fifth hole of the second round.
His caddie found it at the last minute — it was hidden by a clump of mud, and Martin believes a cart was parked over the ball at one point — so instead of going back to the tee and probably taking double bogey, Martin hacked it short of the green and chipped in from 30 yards for birdie.
With a 5-foot par putt on the last hole, he was on his way back to Olympic.
“That’s kind of when I thought, ‘OK, maybe something greater than just myself … something’s going on here,’” he said. “It was a great day, and I’ve used the word ‘magical,’ but it really was kind of a magical day for me to get here.”
Despite the controversy surrounding him and his lawsuit for the right to ride, Martin has nothing but the best memories of Olympic in 1998. He had sued the PGA Tour for a right to ride a cart. He qualified for the U.S. Open, and because a court had issued a temporary injunction against the tour, the USGA went along with it and let him ride.
He played a practice round with Tiger Woods, his old teammate at Stanford, before thousands of fans. He was more nervous than ever, especially with a 3:10 p.m. tee time in the first round. He opened with a 74, followed with a 71 to easily make the cut and wound up with a tie for 23rd.
A year later, Martin earned a spot on the PGA Tour through the Nationwide Tour. And in 2000, the Supreme Court upheld his lawsuit against the tour. Martin played one year on tour and never returned to the big leagues.
“I probably wouldn’t have thought I would be coaching,” he said. “When I was going through my trial and through my challenges, I didn’t have a real long-term vision of professional golf. I thought it would be a pretty short window. And so here I am, 40. Even though I’m not playing for a living, I’m still playing. And so I’m grateful for that.”
Martin has a practice round scheduled on Tuesday with Woods, and the gallery figures to be enormous. That’s how it was during their practice round in 1998, though Martin was playing the Nationwide Tour and accustomed to a regular diet of competition.
His return to Olympic has been overwhelming, only he feels less prepared for it.
“It kind of feels like 1998 all over again with a lot of the attention, and it’s great,” Martin said. “I’m totally flattered, but last week it was a very challenging week for me. Just a lot of demands on my time. I’m just not built for this. I don’t have an agent. I just kind of live my life. Then all of a sudden it was just kind of being bombarded.”
It’s a nice problem to have, especially with a return to Olympic for another U.S. Open. With his right leg, Martin has learned to expect nothing and appreciate everything. With or without the U.S. Open, he feels life has given him plenty.
“We have the mindset as parents that we want our kids to grow up to be a stud superstar,” King Martin said. “When I see how God has a totally different design for his life, and it’s much more incredible that I could designed, for me to guess where it’s going next is beyond me. I’m so grateful that he’s had such an extraordinary life to this point. We all go along for the ride, take it day by day and trust what whatever comes, comes.
“I don’t want to lose the fact how grateful we are he is where he is.”
The player in Martin knows what he’s up against, and it goes beyond a right leg that makes it painful to even walk. The opening six holes at Olympic are brutal, and the U.S. Open no matter where it’s played is called the toughest test in golf for a reason.
“People have been coming up to me this week going, ‘Way to go, I’m so excited for you, you have to be so excited.’ And I am. I want to make it clear that I really am excited to be here,” Martin said. “But there’s also in the back of your mind the little fear factor of, ‘I have to play this golf course.’ And I don’t play or practice like a lot of these guys do and yet I still want to compete.”