The Cabdriver was excited when he learned that the fare he had just picked up at Robert Muellar Airport would be teeing it up in the Nike tour's Greater Austin Open later in the week. "Hey, what do you think of the guy in the cart?" the cabbie asked. The passenger grinned. "That's me," he answered brightly. The driver turned, saw Casey Martin in the back-seat and let out a low, "Oh, my god...."
The guy in the cart. Is that all there is for Martin? He has beaten the PGA Tour in court, but can he beat Tour players on the course?
Two things became apparent after Martin, 25, entered the Austin city limits to play for the first time since winning his landmark case, which gives him the right to ride a cart in competition, against the Tour. First, he's famous. Facing a standing-room-only pretournament news conference, Martin said, "I'm dealing with the kind of media attention only select players in the world face, and I'm not a select player yet. It's like the world is watching to see if I'm really any good." Second, he has enough game to be successful on the PGA Tour. Despite finishing 16th at the Hills Country Club, eight strokes behind winner Michael Allen, Martin was impressive at times, especially during the first two rounds, a pair of 69s. He's a surprisingly big hitter (Martin ranks 11th on the Nike tour in driving distance with a 279-yard average) and a terrific putter (28th on the tour). That's a combination any PGA Tour player would take to the bank.
If Martin, who won the season-opening Nike Lakeland Classic, wins two more Nike events this season, he will be immediately promoted to the big Tour. If he doesn't, he can earn an exemption for '99 by finishing among the top 15 money winners on the Nike tour. He is currently first in earnings with $43,532.
Because of his celebrity and the avalanche of endorsements that have come his way—he's now under contract with Nike, Spalding, Ping and Hartford Life-Martin is just one of the guys on the Nike tour the way Michael Jordan was just one of the guys with the Birmingham Barons. Regular guys don't have schedules like this: Martin's up at 4:30 on Monday morning in Austin, which is 2:30 according to his California dreamin' body clock, to go forehead-to-forehead with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show. Martin spends the remainder of the day with Stone Phillips at nearby Barton Creek Country Club, playing golf and being interviewed for Dateline. That night it's dinner with some suits from Hartford Life to discuss his latest endorsement deal. On Tuesday he plays an early practice round, then submits to a mass interrogation by about 180 journalists, up slightly from the 27 who were credentialed for this event a year ago. "This is a zoo," Martin says. Later he plays in a four-hole celebrity event. On Wednesday morning Martin plays in the regular pro-am and mat afternoon has a photo shoot with ESPN and a session with the Golf Channel. "I'm pretty sure I've got a golf tournament on Thursday," Martin jokes, "but I can't remember."
In his gallery last week was a man with a prosthetic leg and several fans driving single-rider carts. Nine-year-old Kern Loest of Fort Worth was also there. He suffers from Klippel-Trenauney-Weber syndrome, the same circulatory disorder Martin has, and watched the tournament from the shoulders of his father, Craig. Martin gave Kern an autographed cap and T-shirt, and signed the boy's protective stocking. "Kern clipped newspaper articles about Casey, took them to school and said to his buddies, 'This is what I've got'," said Craig Loest.
Martin takes his responsibility as a representative of the disabled seriously. "It's like I'm standing for something far greater than just myself," he says, "and that's flattering."
The biggest question concerning Martin is, How long will he last? Clearly, he is vulnerable, and one misstep could cost him his leg. Last week he weathered two potentially dangerous incidents, both on the 18th hole at the Hills. On Friday, after blocking his tee shot into a hazard, Martin jumped across a three-foot-wide stream to to get to his ball. On the way back he landed hard enough on his withered right leg to let out a yelp of pain. "If I do something stupid, like slip or twist my leg, that's definitely trouble," Martin says.
On Saturday, Martin's approach shot stopped in the gallery to the right of the green. Someone tried to move a Golf Channel cart that was in the way, not realizing it was in reverse gear. The cart jumped backward, plowing hard into a volunteer, and stopped within a foot of a shaken Martin. "That was scary," he says. Imagine, Casey Martin done in by a cart.
Equally incongruous was the prospect of Martin's taking the advice of his caddie, former Stanford roommate Steve Burdick, on Sunday morning, when temperatures in the 40s combined with 40-mph winds to create a windchill factor in the low 20s. Burdick suggested that, to stay warm, Martin should ditch his cart and walk. Martin considered that option before choosing the safer, albeit colder, path and riding. He shot 78, not a terrible score under the conditions. Mainly, he was happy to finish. "It's a relief to get this one out of the way," he said. "Hopefully things will the down now."