Casey Martin and cart return to golf's U.S. Open

Casey Martin
Casey Martin of the United States drives a golf cart during a practice round prior to the start of the 112th U.S. Open at The Olympic Club on June 13, 2012, in San Francisco, California.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

(CBS News) Golf's U.S. Open starts Thursday in San Francisco. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Masters champion Bubba Watson will tee off in the same group. Also in the field, for the first time in 14 years, is someone you might remember more recently from the courtroom - not the golf course: Casey Martin.

The former college teammate of Tiger Woods is perhaps the easiest guy to root for as the U.S. Open gets underway.

"Some crazy things happen in life," Martin said. "And here I am, and I'm excited to get to compete."

Martin hasn't played competitive golf in half a dozen years - he's the full-time golf coach at the University of Oregon.

Born with a condition that inhibits circulation in his right leg, Martin plays golf on one good leg. "When I limp around, that's no joke or act. It's just kind of how I walk," Martin said.

He's lived with the threat of amputation all his life. "I've been in jeopardy for a long time with that. My leg is pretty fragile," Martin said. "If I were to break it or something significant happen to it, I probably wouldn't have it."

"Unless you really know him, I don't think people really have an appreciation of how much pain he's in," Tiger Woods said. "He just lives with it."

Fifteen years ago, Martin, then an aspiring professional golfer, sued the PGA Tour for the right to use a golf cart in competition. The tour's position was that riding gave him an unfair advantage over other players who had to walk.

It was a painful time for Martin who was opposed some of his heroes like Jack Nicklaus who said riding would corrupt the traditions of the game. Nicklaus said, "That's all the tour wanted to have - to have all the players play by the same rules."

But Martin won. The tour appealed. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which backed Martin.

"I don't think much about my role in the game or what people think or who likes me or who doesn't," he said. "I knew that I needed some help to be able to pursue my dreams and fortunately it worked out that I was given that opportunity."

Even with the cart, Martin struggled as a professional golfer. The highlight of his career had been tying for 23rd at the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. When he saw the Open was returning to Olympic this year, he decided to try qualify.

Mike Davis, executive director of the United States Golf Association which runs the Open and fills roughly half the field through qualifying tournaments, said, "We get the best players in the world at the U.S. Open. But there's an opportunity for other players to really live their dream.

Davis added, "Any year I'd say 75 to 85 spots for 9,000 people to try to qualify for. To have (Martin) virtually leave the game and to have him come back and qualify for an event at this level, it's almost beyond belief."

At 40, Martin is savoring every step this week - joyful and painful at the same time. The practice rounds are with old friends, he's getting encouragement from fans, and he has the chance to play in the national championship where instead of dividing the golf world. He's uniting it, everyone hoping to see him play well.

"A lot of the well-wishers are so excited for me, like 'Go win this thing and take it down,'" Martin said. "I'm like, 'Guys, look, this is really, really a huge test, these golf courses. Off the charts difficult - difficult for the best players in the world who are at the top of their game, let alone a 40-year-old golf coach with a disability."

  • Jim Axelrod
    Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.