For Casey Martin, the fire still burns
Casey Martin: Ten Years Later
The 10 members of the University of Oregon golf team sit scattered across the floor and the two beds of a hotel room. They have just traveled together, three hours in three cars, from Eugene to Bandon, to participate in a two-day tournament at the seaside links resort known as Bandon Dunes. The players come in all shapes and sizes, and a variety of colors, too. It is the night before the practice round, and their coach wants to talk strategy.
"Off the green, you chipping or putting?" the coach asks.
One by one, the players answer.
"Putting," the first player says with conviction.
"Putting," the second says with a nod.
"Chipping," says the third, drawing raised eyebrows from the coach.
"Depends on the situation," the next player says.
"All good answers," says the coach, who continues to work the room, pacing the floor with a noticeable limp. The coach wants a peek inside each player's brain, not to question the players or change the players, just to verify that their minds are on golf.
When the last golfer has spoken, the coach commands the floor. He is Casey Martin, the former PGA Tour player who became briefly famous 10 years ago for successfully suing the tour, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, for the right to use a cart in competition.
Martin suffers from a rare birth defect in his right leg known as Klippel Trenaunay Weber syndrome. In the most basic terms, the blood vessels in the leg did not form properly. Martin's right leg is extremely weak, atrophied and throbbing with pain day and night. His battle with the PGA Tour was front-page news, especially when PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and a bevy of players, including Jack Nicklaus, spoke out against the right for any player to use a cart in competition.
Martin did not back down. Not then. Not now. "No regrets," he said. "None at all. If you were to step into my leg for a day, you might understand better. But that's fine."
Although Finchem and others have long claimed that the opposition to the suit was more about the PGA Tour wanting to govern itself than about ruling against Martin and a golf cart, the message was not delivered in a sensitive way. Had it been handled in a cleaner fashion, Martin certainly would have been able to ride and compete. As the suit garnered more attention, Martin became a sideshow to the tournaments he was playing in.
After competing full time on the PGA Tour in 1999 and losing his card when he finished No. 179 on the money list, Martin never regained full-time status. Using a cart on what was then known as the Nike Tour was hardly an advantage for Martin, who had to negotiate the galleries, the ropes and the undue attention when he would have much preferred to walk and talk with his caddie.
"Maybe on a 120-degree day or on a really hilly course it helped to ride," Martin said. "But I certainly wish I could've walked. The rhythm of the game at a competitive level is a walking rhythm, not a riding rhythm."
Five years ago, after playing in a handful of events on the Nationwide Tour, Martin decided the grind was too much for him.
"The tour life is great when you're doing well," Martin said. "But when you're single and not playing well, not so much. And it had taken me awhile just to get on the tour. I'd had enough."
So, quietly, he put away the sticks and moved into the head-coaching position at Oregon, in his hometown of Eugene. And all he has done since then is turn a mediocre golf program with little history into one of the nation's best teams. The Ducks were NCAA semifinalists (and the No. 1 team in the nation for a spell) a year ago and began play in the 2011 NCAA tournament on May 19.
Back in the hotel room, Martin is finishing up his team talk.
"Listen," he said. "Here's the forecast for tomorrow. Winds that will whisper gently at about, oh, 40-50 miles per hour. Light rains that will total only about three to four inches."
The players laugh.
But then Martin gets serious.
"Here's how we will practice," Martin said. "We will not just drop balls in the fairway and hit a bunch of shots into the green. We will play our ball into the green from every position we put ourselves in."
He wants the players to deal with the elements, simulating competitive golf as much as they can.
"I'm telling you," Martin said in a firm tone. "If you want to play in a British Open someday, this could be what you're dealing with. You think they're going to suspend play in a British Open because it's raining sideways and the wind is knocking you down? No, they won't suspend play. Some guys will want it to be suspended. And some guys will want to walk off the course tomorrow when it gets rough. But that's not us. That's not us."
Away from his team later on, Martin said, "It has nothing to do with me and what I've been through. I just want my players to have a chip on their shoulder. Like, we're not the kids born with a silver spoon from the sunshine state schools. We don't complain."
But it's obvious the Ducks are a reflection of their coach, not necessarily by choice but by the will of Martin's personality.
"He's very intense," junior Andrew Vijarro said. "Sometimes, I think we wish he'd let up just a bit, but that's not Casey."
Martin makes no apologies.
"If guys are working hard, living right, then I will feel bad for them if they have a bad round," he said. "But when I see guys cutting corners, not eating right, not practicing hard, when they play poorly, that guy will get an earful."
And when the players lose sight of just how hard-driving Martin is, they all know the backstory. Martin was part of an NCAA championship team at Stanford -- pre-Tiger Woods -- and despite his disability, Martin was good enough to finish No. 14 on the Nike Tour money list in 1999 and 23rd at the U.S. Open in 1998.
"He's the reason I came here," junior Eugene Wong said during the practice round at Bandon. "You look at his experience, what he's done, and it means more than warm weather and no rain. Casey can still beat the best players on our team. He's still really good."
Martin said he doesn't challenge his players as much as he did in his first few years because coaching and recruiting is a full-time job that leaves very little time for practice. And truth be told, he doesn't want to take them on if he doesn't have a decent chance of beating them.
"I'm pretty competitive," Martin said. "I like to win. In everything."
There are days when the Ducks can hear the sound of Martin's intensity ringing off the driving range at the Eugene Country Club.
With a driver in hand, Martin can still move the ball 300-plus.
"He goes there with only a driver and lets out some of his frustration," said assistant coach Steve Nosler, who coached the Ducks for 14 seasons before being replaced by Martin. "When he feels like he's said all he can say. When he feels, maybe, like guys aren't working hard enough. He beats some balls. Casey is such a fierce competitor, and a golf coach really controls very little."
The challenge that Martin took on at Oregon was daunting. How do you persuade the nation's best golfers to come to a place where the average temperature is 52 degrees and the annual rainfall is 51 inches?
The answer is simple. You probably don't. So, you look off the radar a bit.
"I don't have a lot of guys with famous swing coaches," Martin said. "Half my guys have swing coaches. Half have their parents. My main five guys are not the norm. And I like that. They compete hard, and their minds aren't on trying to have a perfect golf swing. Nobody on my team is on a quest to have a perfect golf swing."
Coming out of Cathedral Catholic High School near San Diego, Mierniecki made up his mind to go to Oregon when he heard Martin say, "Man, I love your golf swing." Reflecting on his decision to head north to Eugene rather than play at his choice of California schools, Mierniecki said, "With Casey, I didn't think I had to worry about anyone looking to change my swing if I had a bad stretch. I mean, I know I've got a weird swing. But it's mine."
"I read 'Money Ball,'" Martin said. "And it applies to golf. Really, I should never recruit off of anything but scores. You get biases when you go watch guys play, and you want guys to do well because you like what you see. But if I just look at the core number, well, then who cares how they look? I try to really focus on one thing: What do you score?"
Martin realizes the "Money Ball" approach is as cold as it is calculating.
"It's hard to take emotion out of the equation, but that's the smart way to find players," he said. "Recruiting is far and away the most important part of my job. I'm still trying to get a grasp on how to improve my X's and O's, honestly. I know the golf swing, but I'm not entirely comfortable tinkering with guys. So, for me, right now, I'm trying to focus on recruiting the best players I can find and driving the bus in the right direction."
Recruiting, and learning how to recruit, has become an obsession. Martin follows national recruiting websites like a day trader follows the stock market. Not just in golf.
"I don't think Casey sleeps a whole lot," Nosler said. "Because when I see him, he's always telling me about some football or basketball player who might come to Oregon."
Mike McGraw, who coaches at Oklahoma State, a perennial college golf power that has produced the likes of Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Bo Van Pelt and Charles Howell III and which defeated Oregon in the NCAA semifinals last year, said with a laugh, "I just signed a player for the fall of 2012, and I got a call from Casey the morning after, and I'm still trying to figure out how he heard about it. He's on top of everything."
Said Ben Crane, the lone Oregon alum on the PGA Tour, "I think the only thing about Casey that he could improve, and he knows this, is patience. He wants it all right now; he wants to be the best team in the country right now. And I think that he knows as well as we all do, in order to grow a team and in order to bring a championship to Oregon, it's going to take awhile. It is a process he wishes he could speed up, but sometimes it just takes a few more years than you think."
At the Bandon Dunes tournament, which was held in mid-March, the Ducks battled all the elements their coach forecasted, but finished second to fellow Pac-10 team Washington. It was a harbinger for the way the 2011 season would play out. With all the same players who took the Ducks to the top of the NCAA rankings last year, Oregon has taken first outright in only one tournament this spring, the Santa Barbara Invitational in late March. The Ducks are on the outside of the top 20 heading into the NCAAs.
At the Pac-10 tournament, they rallied on the final day to tie Southern California for the low score before losing in a playoff. Wong, the team's best player from a year ago and the 2010 Jack Nicklaus Award winner as the top player in college golf, has taken several steps back and fallen into the category of player that frustrates Martin. That is to say, talented but at times lacking in areas such as fitness and overall preparation.
"This feeling is different," Martin said of coaching in general. "As a player, you control the effort you put into something. As a coach, not as much. I admit, I'm a high-energy guy. If I could, I'd be playing basketball, running, doing something physical. If I have any regret in life, it's that the condition of my leg kept me from doing all those things. So, I may not deal very well with watching guys give less than they've got."
At 38, Martin knows these could've been his prime years as a player. He talks about maybe trying to qualify for next year's U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, where he had his greatest four days as a player back in 1998. But he also admits that he's in pain. Close friends suggest that amputation of the right leg could occur in the next few years, and Martin has met with several veterans of the Iraq War to discuss their prosthetics. But, Martin says, "I don't know if that's the best route at this point. I'm managing the pain all right now."
That leaves coaching.
"Can I do this for a long time?" he asks himself. "Part of me thinks maybe because I'm from Oregon and I love the Ducks. But another part of me wonders if I will. I put a lot of pressure on myself to win, and I'm relying on 18- to 20-year-old kids. Great kids, no doubt. But this year's been frustrating because we haven't gotten to the level where we were last spring. These things keep me up at night. It's a challenge."
Another challenge. Don't expect Martin to back down.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.