Former Stanford golfer Martin back at Open, defying the odds

Casey Martin hasn’t competed in a professional event since 2006. He doesn’t even play full rounds regularly anymore. And he’s still battling a circulatory disorder that makes walking painful.

Hardly the ideal résumé for a golfer preparing for the U.S. Open, arguably the most challenging event of the year.

But there he was Monday, back in San Francisco at the Olympic Club, 14 years after he finished in a tie for 23rd at the Open, preparing to tee it up in one of golf’s crown jewels later this week. And along the way, he’s garnering plenty of attention as one of the event’s more intriguing story lines.

“It kind of feels like 1998 all over again with a lot of the attention, and it’s great,” Martin said.

When the current Oregon coach last appeared at Olympic, his one and only appearance in a major, he had to fight just to do so. Martin sued the PGA Tour to use a cart during competition due to his condition, called Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in his favor in 2001, though he needed an injunction in 1998 to play in the Open.

“I don’t like to be the center of controversy and it kind of followed me for a long time there,” said Martin, who will have the use of a cart caddie this year.

And while the controversy that surrounded the cart has dissipated some over time, the pain in his right leg hasn’t.

“I’m 40 now and so this is at that point where I didn’t know if I would ever really be able to keep my leg,” Martin said. “So it’s not great. When I wake up, I feel it. When I get out of the golf cart, I feel it.”

But the pain wasn’t enough to dissuade him from trying to qualify for this year’s Open at Olympic.

He advanced through local qualifying before winning the sectional qualifier in Oregon, setting up his unlikely return.

“And so here I am, 40, even though I’m not playing for a living, I’m still playing, and so I’m grateful for that,” Martin said.

Martin said he’d likely play a practice round with Tiger Woods today. It could be a chance for Woods to win back money that Martin took off him during a putting contest when the two were teammates at Stanford.

Martin said he wound up winning about $190, certainly chump change to the world’s most recognizable golfer these days.

“[The check] says ‘To Casey Martin from Tiger Woods,’” Martin said. “So I Xeroxed it, sent it home, my mother cashed it, but then she put it in the scrapbook, so it’s official.”

As for expectations for this week, Martin isn’t getting carried away.

“I would like to make the cut,” he said. “I would like to get paid. Obviously, there’s a lot of money in this tournament and that would be fun. But that aside, I’m just going to go compete and give it my all.”

Injuries open up spots for teenagers

A pair of injuries has opened up spots in this week’s U.S. Open at the Olympic Club for two youngsters, including one player who is scheduled to become the youngest player to compete in the event since World War II.

Paul Casey (back) and Brandt Snedeker (rib) withdrew Monday, creating openings in the 156-player field for 14-year-old Andy Zhang, an amateur from Florida who is originally from China, and two-time U.S. Junior Amateur champion Jordan Spieth.

“You’re always disappointed to miss time due to injury, but it’s especially true when you have to withdraw from the U.S. Open,” Casey said.

Zhang will tee off at 8:21 a.m. on Thursday from the first tee with Hiroyuki Fujita and Mark Wilson, while Spieth joins the group of Bill Haas and Nick Watney from the ninth tee at 1:14 p.m.

Miller time: As far as U.S. Open qualifying stories go, it’s hard to top that of Dennis Miller.

The Youngstown, Ohio, resident reached this week’s national championship at the Olympic Club by knocking in a birdie putt on the fourth extra hole of sectional qualifying last week.

But it wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill birdie. The ball hung on the edge of the hole, causing Miller to turn away in disgust, before eventually dropping in after an eternity. The video clip went viral and now Miller, the 42-year-old golf director of several courses in Ohio, is sharing the same stage with the game’s biggest stars.

“I could never have dreamed of qualifying for the U.S. Open in this fashion, that’s for sure,” Miller said.

On Monday at Olympic, Miller was already well on his way to becoming a fan favorite in The City by sporting a 49ers hat.

Niners owners Denise and John York are from Youngstown, as well as former owner Eddie DeBartolo.

“It’s a great honor to wear this hat and support the 49ers and the people back in Youngstown,” Miller said.

First-round tickets available: A limited number of tickets are available for Thursday’s opening round of the U.S. Open and practice rounds today and Wednesday. Tickets can only be purchased with cash or a credit card at will call at the main admission gate and the John Muir admission gate on-site at the Olympic Club.

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