Martin stares down Olympic, cards 74

SAN FRANCISCO -- Casey Martin was hours away from death 10 years ago, and those cold-hearted guardians of the game who challenged his right to use a cart on their golf courses really need to remember that.

The Supreme Court didn't heal Martin's diseased right leg. The landmark case that went the player's way didn't alleviate the mind-numbing pain, didn't wipe out the grim prospect of amputation, and didn't stop a doctor from telling his parents they needed to pray for their child.

"He had 24 hours to live," Martin's mother, Melinda, revealed Thursday as she walked The Olympic Club course to watch the toughest man in the U.S. Open field.

Martin was already world famous for fighting the good fight against the PGA Tour when, in 2002, a series of injections designed to stop his veins from bleeding instead left him with a potentially fatal bacterial infection, left him to endure three emergency surgeries and a two-week stay in a hospital.

So Tim Finchem and Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and every other elder who testified against Martin back then, but felt good for him after his courageous round of 74, need a little history lesson. The men who embraced an incredibly insensitive and narrow-minded position in a sport with a shameful history of exclusion need to be reminded that Martin's built-in disadvantage was always so staggering, they could've let him hit from the members' tees and it wouldn't have mattered.

The competition would've remained unfair -- to Martin.

"Casey said, 'I'm a 40-year-old guy with a 105-year-old leg,'" said his friend, Josh Unruh, who caddied Martin through the sectional qualifier that landed him back in the Open for the first time since 1998, when the player suffering from the circulatory disorder known as Klippel Trenaunay Weber Syndrome was still trying to convince doubters he deserved his ticket to ride.

"Take the worst varicose veins you've ever seen and multiply it by 100," Unruh said. "His right leg is half the size of his left, and if people ever saw how the blood can rush down his leg when he removes his wraps they would've never questioned him. I've stayed with him in hotels and know he's up all night sometimes. Casey lives in pain every day and never complains about it."

He didn't complain Thursday, either, even though he hurt a lot more than he let on, and even though he was a few bad bounces on this brutal course away from something truly special. It didn't matter. Martin might've finished 8 shots off the lead and 5 shots behind his former Stanford teammate, Tiger Woods, but in so many ways his 4-over was the best round of the day.

On one leg, Martin outscored Phil Mickelson (by 2 shots), Rory McIroy (by 3), Bubba Watson (by 4), and the world's No. 1 player, Luke Donald (by 5). The man who described himself as "a disabled 40-year-old golf coach" survived five bogeys on the treacherous first six holes -- of course he did -- to punch back on the remaining dirty dozen, playing them in 1-under.

As the head coach at Oregon, as a guy who hasn't competed in a legitimate tournament in six years, Martin tried to convince himself he had no reason to be nervous. He tried to remind himself that he'd prepped for the U.S. Open by playing beer-and-burger scrambles with buddies on 6,200-yard courses.

It didn't work.

"If you play golf you know what your swing's like," Martin said, "and then all of a sudden you get under pressure and it just feels like you've never hit a ball before in your life."

Riding in a cart with no roof, a cart labeled No. 96, a beat-up set of wheels that looked like it was pulled from the back of a barn, Martin wore an Oregon cap and a neon lime green shirt picked by the Ducks' football coach, Chip Kelly, a friend among the gallery. Martin had once picked out Kelly's uniforms, and now the football coach was returning the favor.

Kelly agreed that Martin was as strong as any of his NFL draft picks, and that he might make for a good motivational speaker for his team this fall.

"People see the cart and talk about the purity of the game," Kelly said, "but Casey was born with this. He's got no control over it. … He's one guy who probably could feel sorry for himself, but he never does."

Except when his first Open drive landed in the right rough and under a tree, his only wayward tee ball of the round. Martin bogeyed the opener, and bogeyed No. 2 after nearly chipping into the hole for birdie. "I was praying for that to go in," he said, and right there it looked like he might've been better off sticking to his friendly neighborhood scrambles.

But when Martin drained a right-to-left 10-footer for birdie at No. 7, everything changed. His heartbeat settled, and his mind cleared. He took deep breaths, he said, "and tried to dumb it down." Suddenly Casey Martin was playing Casey Martin golf, and dozens of family members, friends and old teammates -- many of them dressed in Oregon green -- came to life on the other side of the ropes.

Martin's father, King, spoke of the joy of seeing his son compete, spoke of the competitive fire Casey showed in his practice rounds with Woods. "He wants to show Tiger he belongs out here," King Martin said. "That's a major for him right there, playing with Tiger."

It was a tortuous road here, with long stretches paved in something other than gold. King Martin told the story of a tour event in 2000 when a fan dishonored his boy. "The guy yelled, 'You're a cheater,'" King said, "and Casey faced him and said, 'Come up here and tell me that to my face on the green.'"

The conflict didn't escalate then, just as it didn't escalate at Olympic in '98, when Martin's parents didn't always feel an encouraging vibe from the crowd. "I didn't understand the vindictiveness of some people," Melinda Martin said, and she made it clear she was talking about a small minority.

This time around, the Martins have felt nothing but unmitigated love. People keep calling out to Casey's parents, assuring them they're praying for their son. "It brings tears to my eyes," Melinda said. "We've been truly overwhelmed."

No, Casey wouldn't allow himself to get swallowed up by the moment. He wouldn't allow the pressure and the stakes to touch a good ride unspoiled.

He pressed his long putter against his chest, tightened his cross-handed grip, and fought his way to the par-5 17th, where he nearly made eagle. Martin hobbled up to the 18th green, no cart in sight, and waved to the cheering fans on the hill. He just missed a 14-footer that would've given him a birdie-birdie finish, and then he climbed that hill with a limp more severe than it had been all round.

A man shook Martin's hand, and the golfer leaned on him for support. Adrenaline often carries Casey through, his mother said, "but when he relaxes that's when his pain comes to the forefront."

Melinda Martin explained that her son has no cartilage in his knee joint, and that his pain is similar to a bone cancer patient's. "But he's got a boatload of courage," she said.

All these years later, the people Casey Martin defeated off the course should remember that. The Supreme Court liberated the toughest man in golf from an absurd policy. It never liberated him from his disease.