The Drive to Win

Golfer Casey Martin's lawsuit against the PGA made international headlines. But his biggest trial took place out of court.

May/June 1998

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The Drive to Win

Photo: LM Otero/Associated Press

There could be no doubt anymore, Casey Martin knew: The pain was getting worse. He'd been playing golf on his bad right leg since he was 6 years old – 16 years now. But never had it hurt like this. Through his junior high and high school years, and even his first two years on the Stanford golf team, Martin could rest the leg for a few days and the pain would ease, though it never went away. But now, even normal walking sent agonizing slivers of pain shooting up his shin. By midafternoon at the Arizona State University Golf Tournament in late April 1994, with the temperature in the high 90s, the Stanford junior had already trudged through 23 holes, carrying his own bag with 14 clubs that felt like lead weights. And he had another 13 holes to go.

Then the Arizona State coach turned to Martin's coach, Wally Goodwin. "For cryin' out loud, Wally," he said. "Let's get that kid a cart." The Stanford coach agreed that would ease the stress, but he shook his head. He knew Martin was too stubborn to accept any hint of special treatment.

It was that doggedness that had first drawn Goodwin to the high school senior from Eugene, Ore., at the world junior championships in La Jolla, Calif., five summers earlier. He was impressed by the way Martin kept his right knee stable throughout the swing, a skill the coach usually had to teach young golfers. And then Goodwin saw him hobble away from the tee and limp around the course. He soon learned there was a reason the young player kept that knee in place. Martin had a rare congenital circulatory disorder that left his right leg atrophied and caused frequent internal bleeding into his knee.

Only Martin's closest friends knew how serious his condition was. How he had to ice and elevate the leg every night, and slept with it resting on five pillows. How he used his left foot on the pedals of his car, keeping the bum one stretched out. How he wore a compression stocking to compensate for a missing vein and to force blood up from his leg to his heart.

As Goodwin predicted, Martin did refuse the cart that day. But the young man merely put off the day of reckoning. Soon he'd have to make a decision that would thrust him into national headlines, bring him to court against a group he'd aspired to join since childhood, and make him a symbol for another group, one that he wasn't ready to admit he even belonged to – people with disabilities.

King and Melinda Martin knew something was wrong when 9-month-old Casey would wake up screaming, but it wasn't until their son was about 4 that doctors diagnosed Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome. Since Martin was born without the main vein that returns blood from the lower right leg to the heart, blood pooled instead in the leg's contorted smaller veins, then into his knee. Activity made it worse.

Still, his parents accepted doctors' advice to let Casey live as normally as possible. Although he played piano and was a brilliant student, that also meant sports. Martin played basketball briefly, and goalie on the soccer team. But two or three days after each game, or even after a misstep off a curb, the hemorrhaging would start, causing throbbing so intense he couldn't sleep. "He's been in pain every day of his life," Melinda Martin says.

The discomfort did not keep him from his real love: playing golf. His dad had played in high school, and Martin and his older brother, Cameron, were both standouts. Casey won 17 junior tournaments, placed second at the Junior World Tournament and, in 1987, earned the Oregon State Junior title. He won the state championship his senior year in high school – and graduated first in his class, earning a scholarship offer from Stanford.

"I wasn't taking a chance," the coach recalls, referring to Martin's condition. "I wanted him on my team. I look for players with a competitive heart, and he had the biggest one I ever saw."

Goodwin wasn't disappointed. Although he was rangy, the 6-foot-2-inch Martin could generate enormous club head speed, thanks to his strong arms and chest. Most players derive much of their power from their legs, but Martin's right side couldn't contribute any strength. Much of his success came from mental discipline: He made few mistakes.

Martin's personal qualities impressed people as much as his golf game. When golfer Will Yanagisawa transferred to Stanford, he knew hardly anyone and had trouble adjusting. Martin took him under his wing. He gave Yanagisawa a Bible he still carries, took him to church and Athletes in Action Bible-study meetings – and to less exalted endeavors. "Casey knows how to party," Yanagisawa says, recalling Martin ripping out "Great Balls of Fire" on a hotel piano when the team was at a tournament.

His teammates named Martin captain in 1994, and his numerous top-5 finishes that year, including a victory and two second places, helped Stanford capture the national team title. In 1995, Martin won the U.S. Intercollegiate Golf Championship and again led the Cardinal, including then freshman Tiger Woods, to the NCAA finals. He also won the University's Jay Gimbel award for best competitive attitude in sport.

The award honored Martin's courage in dealing with his leg pain. But his courage was tested another way after that Arizona State tournament. With his leg deteriorating, school officials persuaded Martin to invoke an NCAA rule permitting golfers with certified medical disabilities to use a cart. Martin loathed even the appearance of special treatment, but no one objected. He only used it a few times, when the pain was too much. But by accepting help, Martin had taken his first, halting step in a new direction.

After graduating in 1995 with a degree in economics, Martin looked forward to professional golf, where he wouldn't have to face 36-hole days or carry his own bag. In 1996 and '97, he played the minor-league NGA/Hooters tour. But by 1997, he recalls, "I was miserable. Just to get up the fairway was so painful. It took everything out of me." He had a hard time practicing and often had to withdraw from competitions. The sporadic playing destroyed the timing that is so crucial to tournament golf; his game began to shrivel like his leg.

Martin's doctors consulted specialists in Boston, Atlanta, the Mayo Clinic. They tried a brace, a shoe insert, but only one thing helped: Whenever he was able to use a cart, the pain abated somewhat. So Martin asked the NGA to let him ride in competition. They turned him down.

Then his friend and neighbor Bill Wiswall, a lawyer, told him about the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1990 law intended to relieve discrimination against disabled people. Wiswall believed the law required the golf association to accommodate Martin's disability by allowing him to use a cart, just as it might require a company to build a wheelchair ramp to give access to disabled customers.

But Martin didn't want to sue. It was against his nature to challenge established authority, and it seemed pointless to sue the NGA when he'd soon be trying to make it to the PGA Tour or its second division, the Nike Tour. Moreover, he had made up his mind. If he didn't succeed at the next annual PGA qualifying tournament, he'd quit pro golf.

November came, and with it the crucial PGA event. The tournament consisted of three stages. With one round left in the second stage, Martin languished in 45th place. His father, caddying for him, told Casey how proud he was and how the family would support him as he sought a new career. It was time to put golf aside.

Then it happened. On what looked to be his last day as a pro golfer, Casey Martin went out and shot a 69 in the final round of the second stage and rocketed to 14th place, securing a spot in the tournament's third stage in Florida.

What turned his game around? The PGA allows competitors to ride a cart during the first two stages of the qualifying tournament. The miracle round proved to Casey that, if his leg was rested, he could regain his form.

But his relief was short-lived. The PGA had revised its rules for the final stage of the 1997 qualifying tournament, lengthening it from four days to six, and prohibiting carts. Martin knew his leg couldn't stand that much limping. He submitted a formal request to PGA officials, with medical documentation, asking to use a cart. They sent back a curt refusal.

Now, Martin faced the biggest decision of his life. To continue his career, he'd have to qualify. But he couldn't qualify unless he could ride. And he couldn't do that unless he sued the PGA. Martin had always resisted special treatment, but the law said this was just about equal opportunity. The choice was clear: Acknowledge that he was disabled, or give up the game he loved. With 10 days to go until the tournament's final stage, he would have to decide immediately.

"Let's go for it," he told Wiswall, who quickly filed the lawsuit with the federal court in Eugene. Now Martin had not merely accepted help – he'd demanded it.

On November 28, U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin granted an injunction allowing Martin and any other golfer to use a cart (only a handful did), pending the outcome of the February trial. Freed from much of the ordeal of walking, Martin got through the 108 holes in 4-under par, finishing 46th. He missed qualifying for the PGA Tour by only two strokes but made the Nike Tour. His career was back on track.

A month later, Martin entered the first Nike tournament of the year, the Lakeland Classic, in Florida. Suddenly, the man who hated being singled out found himself besieged by reporters and cameramen drawn to the lawsuit story. Martin put all his fierce determination and his newly revived game to work.

On January 9, after teeing off on the final hole, he led the field by a stroke as he limped from his cart to his ball, lying on the fairway. He pulled out an 8-iron and lashed the ball 158 yards – to within 10 feet of the hole. Cheers erupted from the gallery as he two-putted from there to win the tournament with a magnificent 19-under-par performance. Now the 25-year-old golfer, who just weeks earlier was about to put an end to his career, was signing autographs. In the next few weeks, he'd be a mainstay in the sports pages – but would also show up in Time, Newsweek, MSNBC CNN, even Crossfire.

Indeed, Martin's Lakeland victory turned a golf story into an international phenomenon. "It put the focus on his abilities, not his disabilities," says Martha Walters, his other attorney. But, as always, Martin resisted being the focus of anything. Asking for help hurt more than the leg did. On the eve of the trial in Eugene, he still didn't identify himself as a person with a disability. "I'm not there yet," he admitted. "In my heart, I don't feel disabled, though I know I am."

In court, Martin's lawyers argued that the ADA required businesses like the PGA to make reasonable accommodations in policies that discriminated against people with disabilities. The PGA countered that the ADA didn't apply to professional athletes, and that even if it did, the law exempted a business from making any accommodation that would fundamentally alter its nature. The PGA's lawyers insisted that walking was an essential part of the game and that riding a cart would give Martin a competitive advantage over a golfer who walked. And that, the tour claimed, would fundamentally alter pro golf.

Coffin had ruled before the trial that the ADA did apply to the PGA and that carts were a reasonable accommodation. But would using a cart give Martin a competitive advantage and thus fundamentally alter the game?

The PGA's witnesses, including legends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, contended that a golfer who rode grew less fatigued than a golfer who didn't. That argument didn't address Martin's specific condition, however. His lawyers played a video in court that showed Martin removing the compression stocking. The spectators gasped at the sight of the shockingly white and withered limb and the purple splotches that started to appear almost instantly. They saw the leg swell visibly, making it feel, in Martin's words, "like it's going to blow up," and forcing him to sit down and elevate it.

The contrast between the anguish on the screen and Martin's matter-of-fact description tightened throats throughout the packed courtroom. Doctors testified that his disability prevents him from sleeping more than a few hours at a time. He can't exercise and risks a serious leg fracture every time he walks on a golf course. Even one of the retired pro golfers who testified against him, Ken Venturi, acknowledged that with a healthy right leg, Martin would gain a good 20 yards on his drives.

Moreover, testimony backed by surveys showed that most players prefer not to use a cart even when it's available. Walking helps them establish a rhythm, puts them in better touch with course conditions, keeps them drier in rain, and lets them "walk off" emotional highs and lows to maintain the control needed for top-level shotmaking.

"I don't see any advantage," Martin testified. "If I could trade my leg and cart for a good leg, I'd do it anytime, anywhere."

After deliberating only three hours, Coffin agreed, ruling that riding wouldn't even compensate for Martin's disability, much less give him an advantage, and therefore wouldn't fundamentally alter the game. The PGA has said it will appeal. In the meantime, Martin gets to use a cart. And, his father says, if his career does end, whether because of his disability or because his skills don't consistently measure up, "at least it will end with the knowledge that he gave it his best shot."

The February 11 verdict itself was quickly eclipsed by the glaring – and exhausting – publicity that suddenly engulfed Martin's life. He remained unperturbed, and his clean-cut image – deep religious faith, sense of humor, strong family – put an appealing human face on disability. Two out of three respondents in polls thought he should be allowed to ride; public support came from pro golfer Greg Norman and ex-politician Bob Dole, who is himself disabled. Moreover, the widely covered case helped educate Americans about the ADA's emphasis on reasonableness, flexibility and individual needs, dispelling myths that it required absurd "accommodations" like lowered hoops in basketball.

The experience also changed Martin – from a guy who'd spent his whole life trying to conform, to a public embodiment of the idea that it's OK to be different.

In his first tournament after the trial, Martin's Mob materialized – a horde of journalists, people with disabilities who said they were inspired by his courage, and just plain golf fans. Book, movie and endorsement offers (including a Nike commercial) gushed in. Martin still worries about other golfers resenting the attention he gets for making headlines rather than birdies. But the reluctant rebel is beginning to accept his new role in the spotlight.

"I didn't start this to lead a cause," he said to a packed press conference minutes after the court verdict was announced. Standing tall amid the glare of TV camera lights, his weight on his good left leg, he added: "But I'd like to be a role model."

Brett Campbell is an adjunct assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon.

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