Golf: Martin on a ride into dreamland

Jock Howard follows the amazing journey of an unlikely American folk hero

HISTORY is, of course, being made at the Olympic Club this week. It has split the golfing world down the middle like a fiercely struck one iron, and both sides show little sign of backing down. On the one hand, doom merchants like Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus see it as a precedent which will damage the nature of the professional game as we know it. On the other, supporters claim it is the most exciting story to come out of this elitist sport in recent times.

Casey Martin is unlikely to win the US Open here today, but wherever he finishes, he will have limped painfully into the history books. Afflicted with a rare blood circulatory disorder, he has been allowed to ride in a golf cart; the first time such a sight has been witnessed in a major championship. Originally, the cart was going to be a single-seater affair, but, when Martin nearly killed himself in the practice rounds, a more orthodox buggy was sent for.

And so, a rich sub-plot is unfolding in San Francisco. As well as a sore leg, Martin carries around with him a huge gallery which is both enthusiastic and vociferous. When the starter announces his name on the first tee, there is thunderous applause. "It was overwhelming," said Martin. "I was almost crying on the first tee when they gave me that ovation. It meant a lot."

On every hole he plays, they cheer his every move. When he hits a green in regulation, the crowd go berserk. When he holes a three-footer for par, the air is filled with cries of "go get 'em Casey".

Martin earns his bread and butter on the Nike Tour, but played his way into America's biggest event in a sudden-death play-off during the qualifying tournament. He sank a 25ft birdie putt, at the second extra hole, after making a double bogey on the final hole of regulation. This is now much more than a story about a man with a disability. It has become a fairy tale which has gripped America.

After a first-round 74 which he had to finish in the near dark, he comfortably made the cut on a Friday with a 71. "There's the guy with the leg," shouted a young boy as Martin found yet another of the finger-thin fairways at the beginning of his second round.

His swing is as pure as they come, and his long irons are deadly accurate. England's Lee Westwood shook his hand yesterday and then just watched open-mouthed as he hobbled away on the practice green. How anyone can say he has an unfair advantage with his cart is unbelievable.

Payne Stewart, perhaps, puts this whole matter in perspective. "This gentleman is handicapped," he said. "But he has got the ability to play the game of golf. Let him play. I don't think he has an advantage over me."

In his third round, Martin was paired with that other great hobbler of the fairways, Jose Maria Olazabal. The Spaniard once refused to play in one event when he was told he could use a cart, insisting players should always walk.

Olazabal and Martin started very purposefully, intent on shortening their eight-shot deficit with Stewart. At the first, Olazabal holed a 40-footer from just off the back for an eagle, and from half that distance Martin narrowly missed his attempt, tapping in for a birdie.

At the second and the fourth, Martin just missed two further birdie attempts, but as he neared the halfway point of his round he was still under par for the day and very much in the hunt.

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