Martin meets a low hurdle U.S. Open: Compared with what he's faced along the way, Casey Martin's first appearance in national championship of golf is no major obstacle.

June 17, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO -- King Martin can still remember the afternoons when his two sons, Cameron and Casey, would go out to the backyard of the family's home in Oregon and set up a miniature golf course using cut-down clubs and Whiffle balls.

"I'm sure that in his heart and mind and fantasies he's been projecting this for a long time," King Martin recalled yesterday morning, as he watched his now famous son Casey practice for the 98th U.S. Open, which begins tomorrow here at the Olympic Club.

Those backyard fantasies that included making a putt to win the Open have been long swallowed up by what has become the reality of Casey Martin's 26-year struggle with Klippel-Trenauney-Weber syndrome, a birth defect that prevents the blood from circulating properly in his right leg.

The reality also now includes Martin being the Open's focus of attention, overshadowing even former teammate Tiger Woods, with whom he played yesterday. It has been unrelenting since Martin successfully sued the PGA Tour earlier this year for the right to use a cart in Nike Tour events.

It has exploded since he made a 25-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole last week outside Cincinnati to qualify for the Open, his first event among many of the PGA Tour players who believed that riding a cart was giving Martin an advantage.

"Who knows how he'll deal with it," said King Martin, a stockbroker in Eugene, when asked whether he can treat the Open as just another golf tournament. "But he's had to overcome a number of hurdles to get here. This is just another one."

Casey Martin dealt with the tumult yesterday at the Olympic Club better than he did on Monday, when he arrived late because the car he was driving to the course blew a tire on a bottle in the road and the cart he was driving on the course had problems getting up some hills.

His mood yesterday was much more relaxed despite the fact that a crowd of a few hundred fans standing in the mist by the first tee had become tens of thousands lining the 18th fairway when he, Woods and current Stanford star Joel Kribel finished in sunshine around noon.

"Before this year, I would have said it would have been the hardest thing to deal with," Martin said of the huge crowds. "I have been kind of getting used to it. I really look forward to it."

Martin's mood was also lightened considerably when the USGA announced yesterday that it had decided to allow him to use a standard golf cart here rather than the single-occupant vehicle with which he had trouble here and at last week's sectional qualifying, where he said he spun out of control while going down a hill.

Mike Butz, assistant executive director of the USGA, said at Martin's news conference yesterday that the decision was reached "from a safety standpoint, especially from a fan safety standpoint." Butz admitted that other issues involving the standard cart, such as driving in the fairway, will have to be addressed.

Martin said: "I think the single-cart ride is a great idea. I just don't think it is there yet. It's got a few kinks and few things that make it difficult to drive, especially when there are 37,000 people. I'm excited that they gave me a regular cart because it will make my time a little bit easier."

Much of the tension between Martin and the PGA Tour has dissipated over the months since a judge in his hometown ruled in his favor. Most still believe that carts shouldn't be used in any competition, but seem a little more understanding of Martin's physical limitations.

Former Open champion Tom Watson, who finished second here in 1987, said: "I think the Tour is right in the sense that the game should be played walking. But people in better condition have an advantage to people who are not in good condition. The compassion must go to Casey."

There was certainly a good deal of it displayed yesterday among the fans. Most were seeing Martin play for the first time, and seemed impressed by his strength off the tee.

King Martin met a couple from Sacramento who seemed to relate to what his family has endured more than anybody he had met.

"They have a 10-year-old son suffering from the same thing Casey has," said King Martin. "Casey has been an inspiration to their son. They said they wanted to take him to meet Casey when the Nike Tour comes to Sacramento."

Martin has also been an inspiration to his brother. Cameron Martin, 28, stopped beating his younger brother when they reached their late teens.

"His being here is like me being here," said Cameron Martin, who went on to win a state Amateur and play at the University of Oregon. "And I think it's important for him to be here. Once people meet him and put flesh and bone to the story, they'll see he's dealing with a lot. The fact that he's using a little cart to get up a hill doesn't mean anything."

98th U.S. Open

When: Tomorrow through Sunday (Monday if necessary for an 18-hole sudden-death playoff)

Where: The Olympic Club, San Francisco

Length: 6,797 yards

Par: 35-3570

TV: Tomorrow-Friday: 3-5 p.m. on NBC, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10: 30 p.m. on ESPN; Saturday-Sunday: 2-8 p.m. on NBC; Monday (if necessary): noon-2 p.m. on ESPN, 2 p.m.-conclusion on NBC

Field: 156 (153 pros, 3 amateurs), including defending and two-time champion Ernie Els of South Africa, four-time champion Jack Nicklaus, former Masters champion Tiger Woods, 1987 Olympic winner Scott Simpson, 1998 Tour money leader Fred Couples, Casey Martin

Purse: $3 million

Winner's share: $535,000

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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