HARTFORD, Conn. – News that Casey Martin had finally had the inevitable amputation of his right leg elicited a variety of memories.
I first met Casey Martin when he was competing in the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He had the penultimate starting time in the first round, which was 6:33 p.m. on the East Coast while I was a Hartford Courant sports writer, specializing in golf. Since I needed to file a story by 10 p.m., I decided to sit with Casey’s parents in the bleachers behind the first tee to see their reaction as he began his round in the biggest event of his life. Needless to say, a few eyes got misty.
I walked the front nine with his parents and then headed to the press room to write a story for The Courant’s early edition. I included early results from the tournament and then met his parents as Casey completed his round before returning to the press room. He didn’t arrive until midnight, and I had only 30 minutes to file another story with final tournament results and his comments and those of his parents.
Martin was allowed to ride in a cart under the Americans With Disabilities Act due to Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, a congenital circulatory condition that caused atrophy in his right lower muscle and tibia and made it virtually impossible for him to walk 18 holes. His condition was debated in the Supreme Court in 2001, and he successfully sued the PGA Tour by a 7-2 vote for the right to use a cart. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer testified against carts despite Martin’s pain that sometimes made him cry getting in and out of the shower.
Almost miraculously, Martin shot 11-over-par for 72 holes to tie for 23rd and earn $34,043, beating such luminaries as Hall of Famers Nicklaus, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, fellow major champions Fred Couples, John Daly, Mark O’Meara, Justin Leonard, Darren Clarke, Tom Kite and Padraig Harrington, and future Canon Greater Hartford Open winners Brad Faxon, Kenny Perry, Olin Browne, D.A. Weibring and Mark Brooks, who also won a major.
Martin had won a national championship in 1994 while at Stanford when his teammates included Tiger Woods and 2000 Canon GHO champion Notah Begay. Martin turned pro in 1995 and won a Nike (now Korn Ferry) Tour event, the Lakeland Classic, in a playoff in 1998, assuring he would remain on the tour the following year and securing a five-year exemption from the first round of qualifying school.
In June 1998, Martin attained his career highlight in the U.S. Open, and two weeks later, he played in the Canon GHO at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell on a sponsors’ exemption due to his affiliation with Hartford Life, a major sponsor of the tournament, shot 4-over 144 for 36 holes and missed the cut. By finishing 14th on the Nike Tour money list in 1999, Martin secured a spot on the PGA Tour. He finished 179th on the money list in 2000 and failed to keep his card through his earnings on the PGA Tour. As a PGA Tour cardholder for 2000, he began at the final stage of that year’s qualifying school but narrowly failed to keep his spot, finishing tied for 37th when the top 35 and ties qualified, relegating him to the Buy.com Tour.
Martin kept full status on the Buy.com Tour through 2003 but failed to make the qualifying school finals in 2003, relegating him to a limited status in 2004, a year in which he played nine tournaments. In 2004, following the end of his five-year exemption from the first round of qualifying school, he advanced from the first to the second of the three rounds but no further and had only limited status in 2005, playing nine events on the tour and making two cuts. He played five tournaments in 2006, making the cut once and earning $1,328.
Martin qualified for a second U.S. Open in 2012 at the Olympic Club, missing the cut at 9-over 149, and then competed on the Nike Tour and in some PGA Tour events before retiring from competitive golf and becoming the men’s golf coach at the University of Oregon in the state in which he grew up and still lives in Eugene.
Martin, now 49, knew he almost certainly would have to have his right leg amputated, and that day was last Friday at the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
“In many ways, I exceeded what my doctors told me as a kid,” Martin told Golf Digest two weeks ago. “I always felt this would be my destiny, so while it’s weird to be here now, about to become seriously disfigured, it’s not unexpected.”
The knee was amputated above the knee in a 31/2-hour surgery, and only the night before, doctors couldn’t say how high they would have to cut, the potential for excessive bone-bleeding and other complications from amputation that can be serious, even fatal, until they went in.
“The doctors prepared us for the worst-case scenario,” said Casey’s older brother, Cameron, who was at the clinic with their father. “But the report is [the doctors] feel it went well, as they were able to save as much of the bone above the knee as they had hoped. This should give him a good shot at a prosthesis that will be effective.”
Martin broke his afflicted leg two years ago. Roadwork outside his house, retrieving the trash bins at night in the dark, the curb suddenly eight or 10 inches lower than his motor skills remembered. Precisely the sort of accidental step he avoided by driving a cart his lone full season on the PGA Tour in 2000. Despite two years in a cast and a series of injections of the kind more commonly used to treat the old bones of osteoporosis, the tibia never healed.
Martin talked two weeks before his surgery about his decision to go forward with the operation, a version of a conversation he had been having for months with those close to him, including an emotional team meeting with his players at the start of the Ducks fall season. The coming months will be grueling for Martin, whose surgical wound must heal before he starts the difficult process of finding and fitting a prosthesis. Perhaps his personal ordeal the past two years has prepared him for his next challenge. In his 15th and 16th seasons as Oregon coach, he has struggled with crutches at practices, through airport security on recruiting trips, up and down the stairs of unfamiliar clubhouses, to and from rental-car centers, everywhere.
A lighter travel schedule caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was a blessing, but not entirely. As he watched his Ducks fall from the level of their national and conference championship seasons of 2016 and 2017, he also moved out of his house because of a divorce. His main respite has been regular visits to the driving range, where he could hobble from a cart to a pile of balls and still hit 8-irons for 30 minutes, the broken leg held firmly in place by an ExoSym cast. He “lived on Aleve” out of fear of addiction to painkillers that actually work.
“I’m a stack-and-tilt golfer times a thousand, all my weight on my left side,” Martin said on the range at the Colonial Collegiate Invitational in Fort Worth, Texas, his last event as active head coach, where the Ducks finished 13th out of 15 teams. “It’s been a heavy period, but I can laugh about it, thankfully.”
As Martin recovers, assistant coach, longtime friend and 2000 U.S. Amateur champion Jeff Quinney has taken over leading the Ducks, who won the national title in 2016. Quinney won the national title when he made a 20-foot birdie putt on a record-tying 39th hole to beat James Driscoll, who grew up Brookline, Mass., in the 100th anniversary of the event.
“Although I’ve only been here a short while, I think Casey trusts me to continue what he’s established with the kids, that passion for enjoying the grind of getting better,” Quinney said. “I don’t think any of us can honestly know how much pain he’s been going through. But he’s never once complained or looked for sympathy. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, his day-to-day activities will become a little easier.”
It will be a while before Martin figures out how to walk again, but the prospect of playing better golf, even tournament golf, with a prosthesis is a dream he has acknowledged. Martin said he was playing some of the best golf of his life immediately before he broke his leg.
“He still makes that special sound of compressing the ball that you notice going down a range,” Quinney said. “Who knows, he might be in a great mental place. He might just be free to let it go.”
But for now, Casey Martin is just happy to be alive, and I, for one, am delighted that he has a shot to regain some semblance of order to his life.