It was a year of dramatic entrances in golf. Casey Martin came to us courtesy of a black-robed judge, and sometimes the young pro seemed like a character updated from Dickens—Tiny Tim with a titanium driver. Then Matt Kuchar, the 20-year-old U.S. Amateur champion, popped up at the Masters. Suddenly, golf analysts were using the Telestrator to break down his appealing smile, it being the first time that a Cheshire cat had contended at Augusta.
Jenny Chuasiriporn was next. The Duke senior rolled in a 45-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation at the U.S. Women's Open, and the way she clapped a hand over her mouth in disbelief reminded you of the time your sister aced the windmill hole at Putt-Putt. Finally there was the English 17-year-old, Justin Rose, who finished fourth in the British Open at Royal Birkdale. Rose had mums wondering what he was doing out in the wind and rain without a mackintosh.
Four young golfers. Four compelling stories. As is usually the case when a hatchling becomes famous, though, each of this year's prodigies has had to cope with a lot of unfamiliar fuss. Should I sign this? Can I say that? Where would I rather be, at a frat party or at a pro-am reception for bald men in cashmere sweaters?
"Being the center of attention is a real challenge," says Martin, savoring an almost-private lunch of chicken strips and sliced fruit at the Eugene (Ore.) Country Club. "I used to be judgmental of pro athletes and how they handled things, but now that Eve gotten a taste of the limelight, I'm not so quick to take that stance."
In 1998 Casey Martin was more than a center of attention. He was a vortex of controversy. By suing the PGA Tour for the right to use a motorized cart in its tournaments, Martin—who suffers from Klippel-Trenauney-Weber syndrome—had millions of Americans taking sides over obscure provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. When he wasn't trying to beat a hundred other pros on the Nike tour, he was deflecting ideological jabs on Crossfire. "It sent me spinning," Martin says. "There were times when my life was an absolute circus."
The irony is that Martin found fame on the low-profile Nike tour, the PGA Tour's developmental circuit. At every tour stop he was stalked by reporters and cameramen, autograph seekers, advocates for the disabled and the disabled themselves. He was in Tiger's skin, so to speak, and uneasy with his conflicted feelings. "I want to be different, I really do," says Martin. "I realize you can put a smile on somebody's face just by giving a little bit of yourself. But I sometimes struggled to do it."
Martin also found it difficult to deal with the emptiness of his apartment in Foster City, Calif. This fall he moved back to Eugene, the town where he grew up, buying a small house in a gated community. Before Thanksgiving he shopped for furniture with his mother, Melinda, who tried to get him excited about sofas and lamps when all he cared about was his new baby grand piano. "He said he could live without furniture," she says, "but not without the piano." (Casey is an accomplished pianist, having learned to sight-read on the family spinet.)
Martin sees that the good outweighed the bad in '98. He won a Nike event and his court case. He finished 23rd at the U.S. Open, proving that he could play with the world's best, and he ended the year by winning more than $75,000 in the made-for-TV Skills Challenge. Best of all, he played a full season of pro golf. "The leg held up great," he says. "I didn't have nearly as much discomfort, and that's strictly because of the cart."
On the other hand, the leg won't—can't—get better. As Martin walked around the clubhouse after lunch, he limped noticeably on his withered limb. "Today it's miserable," he said. "I'm really hurting." It pained him as well that he didn't gain his PGA Tour card for '99, either by cracking the top 15 on the Nike tour or by passing the Q school finals. However he is still eligible to play the Nike tour, thanks to his win in '98. "It's probably good for me to be back on the Nike," he says. "The scrutiny should the down, and I'll have the opportunity to improve my game."
Maybe. Maybe not. The Tour's appeal will be heard sometime in '99. "Then," says his mother in a worried voice, "it'll start all over again."