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Casey Martin Plays at Last

March 6, 1998

AUSTIN, Texas (AP)_ They gave him cart No. 162 with the initials ``C.M.″ and no roof.

Disabled golfer Casey Martin replied with spectacular shotmaking before one of the biggest weekday galleries anyone could recall for a Nike Tour event.

Martin, playing for the first time since he won the right in court to use a cart as a professional, shot a 3-under-par 69 Thursday with a Tiger Woods-kind of charisma that draws people to the game.

``There goes the guy in a cart,″ said one elderly woman as Martin teed off on the first hole of the Greater Austin Open.

``I’ll probably always be labeled as the guy in the cart,″ Martin said after completing his first competitive round since Jan. 16. ``I know that’s probably the way it will always be. But I’d like to be perceived as a good golfer and a good person.″

All the ``guy in the cart″ did on the first nine holes on the Jack Nicklaus-designed Hills of Lakeway Course was shoot a 5-under 31 that included an eagle and a 30-foot putt for birdie on No. 9 that sent a Masters-like roar echoing through the valley.

``I had nerves on the first tee,″ said Martin, dressed in his Nike hat and shirt. ``But sometimes being a little nervous can be good.″

A federal magistrate ruled on Feb. 11 that Martin could use a cart because of a right leg damaged at birth. The PGA Tour, which governs the Nike Tour, has appealed but the legal process could last 18 months to two years.

The disability is called Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome and there is no cure. Martin, who limps painfully, has no idea how long he can keep playing and said this week it might be only five years.

Martin played with ``a little pain″ as drove his cart down the fairway well behind fellow competitors Robin Freeman and Mike Sullivan, both former members of the regular PGA Tour.

Martin talked to spectators between shots as he waited for them to clear the cart path so he could get to the next hole.

``We’re Martin’s Mob,″ one man proclaimed.

It was a mild, humid day with temperatures in the low 70s as Martin enjoyed his ticket to ride.

``They (the PGA Tour) didn’t want me to ride ahead of the group,″ Martin said. ``They wanted me to hang back and that’s fine. I’m not going to gun the cart up to the green or anything.″

The crowd, which grew to some 150 spectators, wasn’t shielded by gallery ropes and was able to walk with their cause celebre.

Greg Jones of the Association of Disabled American Golfers moved along on a motorized wheelchair.

``He’s just a great kid,″ said Jones, who got Martin to autograph his hat.

The Golf Channel had a crew following Martin to every shot much as it did with Woods in his first PGA tournament at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open.

On the back nine, Martin either got tired or his lack of practice began to show. He shot a 2-over 38 but wouldn’t admit fatigue was the cause.

On the 14th hole, he flubbed a chip from a bad lie and it resulted in a bogey. Two holes later he chipped poorly again from the fringe and took another bogey. He did save par at the 18th with a 12-foot, downhill putt.

``I felt fine,″ said Martin. ``The leg felt better than it usually does. That’s probably because I’ve been off of it for a while. I’m pleased with the day. This is a hard golf course.″

Martin’s 69 had him near the early lead, trailing Michael Allen by three shots.

Jeff Gove, who shot 5-under-par 67, said he ``couldn’t believe the crowd following Casey. That’s OK with me. He can have all the exposure until Sunday. What he’s doing doesn’t bother me.″

Martin, who played with Woods at Stanford, showed how far he can hit the ball despite his disability.

He reached the 505-yard, par-5 No. 8 with a 280-yard drive and a 225-yard 3-iron. He knocked in the 15-foot putt for an eagle.

``The pressure for me today was to play well,″ Martin said. ``I want to give the people something to watch. The distractions weren’t bad out there. I had fun.″

The 25-year-old won the first Nike event of the year but failed to make the cut in the second. If he can win two more Nike events this year he can move up to golf’s big leagues. He missed the regular tour by only two shots during December qualifying.

``I’ve still got a lot of work to do,″ Martin said as he headed to the driving range.

A crowd followed yelling for autographs.

The PGA Tour has Tiger. Now the Nike Tour has a hero, too.

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