(Editor’s note: This story was written by Craig Smith, a Seattle-based freelance writer and member of the Northwest Golf Media Association).
Before he made national headlines in 1998 and this year as a competitor in U.S. Opens at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Casey Martin made a regional splash in 1993 when he won the second Sahalee Players Championship ever played.
“It was one of those weeks when I played well and had success,” said Martin, who had just completed his redshirt year on the Stanford golf team. Ten months later, Stanford won the NCAA championship and one of Martin’s teammates was Tiger Woods.
Martin (pictured) is now the head golf coach at the University of Oregon and his main interest in the Sahalee Players Championship is the competition it provides for top college players. Three players off Martin’s 2012 Oregon team are turning pro this summer, but one, senior-to-be Robbie Ziegler, will be in the field for the July 4-6 event at the Sahalee Country Club on the Sammamish Plateau.
“It’s a tough championship to get into,” said Martin of the 66-man, 72-hole event.
In a telephone interview, Martin said the SPC had the feel of an “impressive” tournament back in 1993 and added, “You could feel they were making a big effort to make it a special event.”
Martin described Sahalee’s fairways as “suffocatingly narrow” and said it is critical to land on the correct side of many greens to avoid facing tricky putts over mounds.
Martin, 40, just completed his sixth year as Oregon golf coach in his hometown of Eugene. He has rejuvenated the program. The Ducks have advanced to the NCAA championship tournament three of the past four years and beat Washington in a national quarterfinal match in 2010. This year, the Ducks once again made it to the Final Four in college golf.
Martin was the surprise medalist at the U.S. Open sectional qualifier held at the Emerald Valley Golf Resort in Creswell, outside Eugene. Heading into that qualifier, he hadn’t touched a club for nine days and hadn’t played in a tournament for five years.
“I was just going to play golf,” he said. “And if I got hot, great.”
He got hot and admits, “I was a little surprised.”
“It was fun to beat guys like Daniel (Miernicki) and Chris Williams,” he said. Miernicki was a standout senior Duck who just turned pro, and Williams is an All-American who will return for his senior year at Washington. Williams also is the defending Sahalee Players Championship winner and hopes to become the event’s first repeat champion.
At the Open, Martin played competitively (74-75) but missed the cut by one stroke.
“I just didn’t make enough putts to get to the weekend,” he said.
Martin rode in a golf cart between shots at this year’s Open, just as he did in 1998, when his cart use was the stuff of worldwide headlines. He tied for 23rd in that Open. He suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a rare circulatory disorder that causes severe pain and makes it virtually impossible for him to walk 18 holes. He successfully sued the PGA Tour for the right to use a cart in all tour events in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the 2001 ruling was 7-2 in his favor. The ruling came after he had lost his PGA Tour card.
Martin is among notable SPC champions such as PGA Tour players Ryan Moore (2004) and Kyle Stanley (2006) plus fellow Hogan Award (top college golfer) winner Nick Taylor of Washington in 2009.
SPC competitors will play 18 holes on July 4, 36 holes on July 5 and 18 on the final day. Admission is free but spectators must adhere to the Sahalee dress code that requires a collared shirt and prohibits jeans and cell phones.
“It’s a coveted event for sure,” said Martin. “Anyone who gets in is going to play against great competition on a world-class golf course.”
Once again this year, the Sahalee Players Championship is scheduled back-to-back with the PNGA Men’s Amateur as part of the “Western Swing.” The PNGA championship will be held at Wine Valley Golf Club near Walla Walla July 9-14.
Visit www.sahaleeplayerschampionship.com and www.thepnga.org for more information.