Casey Martin: Back on the Oregon Junior Golf Trail
After growing up with Oregon Junior Golf, UO men's coach returns to recruit talent
by Ron Bellamy
Life, and his job, brought Casey Martin back to Oregon Junior Golf tournaments, the focus of the summers of his youth.
In his 12th year as the coach of the University of Oregon men’s golf team — NCAA champions in 2016, runners-up last year — Martin spends parts of his summers at junior tournaments in the state, on the trail of potential recruits.
“I don’t just to the big national events,” Martin said. “I go to a lot of the sneaky little events up and down I-5. It’s funny, when I started coaching, I thought, ‘here I am, back again.’ It’s become better and more sophisticated, but it’s the same old stuff. It’s been my life.
“I absolutely want the best kids in the state to play golf here at Oregon, and so I’m looking for them all the time.”
For Martin, Oregon Junior Golf, for players age 7 through 18, was the focus of his summers when he was growing up, inspired by his older brother, Cam.
“My brother started playing OGA stuff when he was 7 or 8 years old, and I was two years behind him,” Martin said. “Anything he did, I would come in behind and want to do it. When he played in those events, I wanted to play too, and I did. ...
“It was a huge part of my youth. As soon as school was out, every day in the summer I’m at the golf course. It was like playing a legitimate tour. Every week you would go to all these different tournaments around the state. You looked forward to them like you can’t believe.
“It was such a big deal to us.”
A highly competitive player who expected himself to contend for victories, Martin doesn’t remember specific tournaments as much as the anticipation of summers on the golf course and in tournaments.
“When I was in high school, and even growing up before high school, I remember the anticipation of playing in these events and the excitement, and in April or May when you were playing some golf around town, knowing that in June you got to play in the OGA,” he said. “That anticipation and that excitement to go compete in these events, I remember that, I can feel that, I can feel it now thinking about it.
“I always had something exciting and meaningful to do over the summer. I didn’t just go down to the skate park and while away my hours. I had goals and ambitions and I couldn’t wait to get out there to do that. And so that is what I really remember the most, and what strikes me is that looking forward to it so much.
“All my middle school or high school friends, I checked out during the summer, and I would reconnect with them in the fall, because I was on tour. And I would always feel kind of bad for them, because they were just at home, not a lot to do. I always had so much to do and so much to look forward to, whether it was competing and practicing or seeing friends you hadn’t seen since last summer, great friends apart from your normal friends at school. ...
“It was a massive part of my growing up, golf in general, but OGA in particular because of the tournaments. I’d get dropped off at the golf course and spend all my time there practicing for the next tournament, just like you would as a pro.”
Martin took his summer “tour” very seriously, in part because he was so competitive, and in part because he recognized, early on, the sacrifices that were being made so that he and Cam could play golf every week.
“I think I learned early that golf was important to me and I took it seriously,” he said. “I didn’t just go out there and whack it around, I was there on a mission to try to win. I think there were certainly some lessons as far as work ethic and preparation and all that stuff that I was getting at a young age, 9, 10, 11 years old.
“It was a game that was fun, but I also recognized that we were traveling and paying money to do it, so there was enough gravity to it that it meant more than just a casual round of golf. I really wanted to play well. And I see that now, in my recruiting world. Families go and there’s a culture to golf, and a culture to these tournaments of being on the road and caravaning around. It’s really fun. It can be a grind, but it’s really fun, too.”
In retrospect, Martin said, “The big story is these mothers and parents who will travel around and chauffeur their kids and sacrifice their entire summers to do that.”
Certainly, his mother, Melinda, did that.
“My mom was that way,” Martin said. “You look back on all the driving, and all of the golf watching. ...My dad was working. He’d go to some events, but not many. It was more my mom, just totally selfless and being there and giving up her life for Cameron and I to chase our dreams. She gave up her life for us, for sure, and enabled us to pursue competitive golf, which is expensive and time-consuming, but we were able to do it freed-up because of her.”
Martin laughed. “ I think she enjoyed it when we turned 16 (and could drive) and could make some of the events without her. Still, that’s eight or nine years of traveling up and down I-5 every week.”
From early on, Martin stood out, not simply because of his talent, but because of the congenital circulatory disorder in his right leg that made walking difficult. As a professional golfer, Martin would file a successful lawsuit against the PGA Tour, prevailing before the U.S. Supreme Court, for permission to ride a cart in Tour events, and would win the Ben Hogan Award, presented to a golfer who perseveres despite physical hardship.
As a junior golfer, in summer tournaments, Martin often wore shorts, so other golfers would see the support stocking he wore, and kids being kids, there were questions, and Martin got very used to dealing with them.
“I got asked about it all the time,” he said. “I used to wear shorts all the time, and I’d kind of hobble around. When I was getting recruited that was a big point with coaches, wondering what was going on. I was even more comfortable talking about it then than I am now sometimes. It was part of me.”
Martin never won the Oregon Junior Amateur championship, the match play event that is a crown jewel of the summer tour, but he won enough and regularly earned enough points that he represented Oregon in the Hogan Cup team event several times, and twice in the America’s Cup, consisting of teams from the western region, including Mexico. (Cam played in the event three times, and Casey remembers his brother telephoning from Calgary one year and talking about this amazing 15-year-old left-handed golfer from San Diego named Phil Mickelson.)
Did Martin put pressure on himself as a young golfer?
“Yeah, at times,” he said. “I remember as I got older and you’re dealing with college scholarships, there was one time when I wasn’t having a particularly great stretch and I remember feeling the pressure of ‘I’ve got to start playing better for these colleges to see me and stuff.’ But it also galvanized me. It made me focus and compete, and some of those lessons of that hyper-focus of ‘I’ve got to get this right’ are important. ...
“There weren’t too many worst moments. Looking back, I can remember playing poorly a few times, and I hated that feeling. That continued throughout golf, whenever you played badly, that sickening feeling of ‘how did I play so poorly when I’ve been practicing so hard?’ That feeling that as a competitive golfer you have to work through — I remember having to do that at an early age.”
Ultimately, is was his play in a junior tournament — ironically, not an OGA event, but the Junior Worlds at Torrey Pines in San Diego, where he finished second — that solidified Martin as a recruit prior to his senior year of high school, and led to a scholarship to play at Stanford, where he was a member of an NCAA championship team. His professional career followed, with wins on the Nike Tour, and playing on the PGA Tour, and two trips to the U.S. Open.
From that perspective, from Oregon Junior Golf to major college golf to the PGA Tour and now as a 45-year-old college coach who recruits players based on the skill and potential they show as junior golfers, Martin offers this advice for junior players:
“Recognize the sacrifices that are taking place for you to be there, both financially and by your parents. And remember that it is a game, even though there is preparation, and golf can be a grind, recognize the joy of being able to be on a golf course competing and playing a game.
“The other thing to be joyful about is that these kids who play on the summer golf circuits will forever be good at golf. They’re learning the game and to compete at such an early age, that regardless of whether they play in college or play professionally, they will always be the best players at their golf clubs, they will be the next generation of good golfers.
“When people pick up the game at 30 or 35 it’s so hard, and they look at someone who played competitive golf at 12 years old as a Rock Star. So keep in perspective that no matter where the game will lead you, you’re always going to be good at a game that a lot of people long to be good at and that is really hard to be good at it.”
Martin sees enough of the dynamic between the golfers and their parents that he has some thoughts there, too.
“It’s a game,” he said. “And I think the kids do feel pressure. I remember it, and I see it all the time recruiting. If parents can make it fun for them and not add pressure, the kids will play better.
“I’ve seen parents, in their intensity to want their kids to do well, just add to that pressure. Competitive golf is difficult, and adds pressure regardless, and I think the kids feel the pressure of ‘it’s expensive and my parents are investing a lot in me.’ I think if the parents are really intense about it, it’s too much.
“My advice to parents is make it fun, don’t add pressure, because the pressure is inherent already. Let your kid make some mistakes and fail a little bit and don’t feel the need to hyper-manage that. Because if a kid is having fun and enjoying golf, and has the passion to get out there and figure it out on their own, they’ll do it. Whereas if it’s coming from the dad who wants to live his dreams out through his kid it tends to backfire. Or if it works, it only works for a short time and then really blows up.
“Golf competitively is hard. It can be heavy. Learning the joy of the game, and the joy of the pursuit of the game, is huge for the kids and the parents.
Ron Bellamy is the former sports editor and columnist for The Register-Guard in Eugene. For past golf writings, visit ronbwriter.com.