Practice was nearly finished at Shadow Hills Golf Course on Thursday afternoon. A severe thunderstorm was rumbling north from Eugene toward the driving range and putting greens occupied by the University of Oregon men’s golf team. The sooner the team finished their putting competition, the sooner they could get back to campus.
But Edwin Yi was taking his time. He addressed his golf ball, which sat slightly downhill three feet from the hole. He wagged his putter, set the club head on the green, picked it up and stepped back. He got himself set, then backed off. He got himself set again before noticing his teammates were growing impatient while edging closer to his personal space.
“Make this putt! What are you doing?” says Yi’s coach, Casey Martin, with a mixture of exasperation and amusement.
Yi approached the ball again, swung his putter back slightly and rattled his shot into the cup.
It seemed to be an elaborate exercise for one of dozens of putts Yi and his teammates would take in the day’s practice, but that ignores the stakes involved. Missing a putt in these practice competitions can cost a player a small amount of the pretend money they start with each season and send the player, his teammates and their coaches to the ground for push-ups.
“I’ve always felt when you compete all the time, somehow when you go play, you play better,” Martin says. “That’s created an environment where they actually go out there and feel like something’s riding on it. It’s corny, but it’s really fun. They don’t want to lose, and the guys that win, they feel like they’ve accomplished something.”
Lately Oregon’s competitions have been marked by major accomplishments. The Ducks closed the 2016 season by winning the NCAA Division I men's team championship, and Oregon sophomore Aaron Wise took individual honors. Last month they won their first outright Pac-12 championship since 1959, and senior Wyndham Clark became the first Oregon player since 1978 to take medalist honors in the event. Last week Clark was voted conference golfer of the year, Martin coach of the year and early enrollee Norman Xiong freshman of the year.
Martin insists on directing credit to the players who populate the roster, but 16 years after going to the U.S. Supreme Court to earn a better chance to compete professionally, Martin is attracting some of the country’s best amateur golfers to compete for Oregon.
They say they are not only drawn by his knowledge of how to excel at the game’s highest levels, but also by his experience in navigating challenges and the lonely lows that are a part of elite golf.
“My coaching philosophy,” Martin says, “is basically I’d go back and look at what I should have done when I was a pro or what I wish I would have done more of and then I try to shepherd my guys through that and make sure they do all the things I wish I would have done.”
It helps that he delivers his message with intensity, enthusiasm and engagement.
As Rick Johnson, a family friend of Xiong who oversaw his college recruitment said, “You can’t fake passion, and Casey has it times 100.”
‘Hang in there and battle’
Martin has passions beyond golf, the biggest perhaps being his unconditional love of Oregon athletics. He watches the school’s other teams whenever they play, even when his own team is playing. When the Ducks had a practice round at Waikoloa, Hawaii, this year on National Signing Day, that meant Martin had to multitask. He has daily conferences with men’s basketball assistant coach Kevin McKenna and served as a uniform combination consultant during Chip Kelly’s tenure as Oregon’s football coach.
Had he been able to play football or basketball, he would have stayed in his native Eugene and attended Oregon like the rest of his family. But golf was one of the only viable sports for Martin due to the presence of Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a severe, congenital circulatory disorder in his right leg. Golf was so viable for Martin that Stanford coach Wally Goodwin courted Martin to join Notah Begay in the powerful Cardinal’s 1990 recruiting class.
“I only saw him play golf once, and it was after I was deep into recruiting with him and we were down at the Torrey Pines at the World Juniors,” Goodwin says. “I was walking around with a bunch of coaches and one of the coaches said to me, ‘Wally, what are you doing recruiting that kid? He’ll never play in college.’
“I remember exactly my answer: ‘I don’t really care whether he plays or not. I hope he does. But I want that guy on my team for lots of reasons other than playing.’ He was absolutely remarkable in every way.”
Martin went on to an all-American career with Stanford that included the 1994 NCAA team championship, and he even took a redshirt year so he would be around for the arrival of a freshman named Eldrick Woods who went by the name “Tiger”.
In 2001, Martin was on the winning side against the PGA Tour in a case that began in November 1997. The Supreme Court ruled he could use a cart in professional competition under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Between 1998 and 2006 he played in 43 PGA Tour events and 126 on the Nike Tour and its successors.
But he isn’t ashamed to say his professional career could have been better, or that the experience drives his current role in the game. “I wasn’t a great pro — and I had a lot of obstacles obviously, so I don’t want to berate myself — but I felt like I didn’t achieve maybe what I could have,” he says. “I was trying to put those pieces together of why and what I wanted to do (as a coach). I didn’t do a lot of competitive things — I’d go play tournaments and I’d kind of come back and be alone.
“So I really coach my team from a perspective of, kind of don’t do what I did.”
Thus the group competitions in practice that build team camaraderie and pressure at the same time. Today Martin runs every aspect of every Oregon practice with assistant coach John Ellis, bouncing from drill to drill wearing a compression sock under his golf pants. He takes anti-inflammatories and measures his activity to limit the risk to the venous malformations in his right leg.
“I try not to do anything stupid, and so gratefully I still have it,” he says. “Here’s the thing: Same as golf, everybody’s got something. Everybody’s got something physically or emotionally or mentally, and you just do the best you can to manage it and hang in there and battle.
“That’s what I’ve done in my life, and that’s what I ask the guys on my team to do.”
A teaching moment
Two years ago Martin found himself asking that of Sulman Raza, like Martin a graduate of South Eugene High School who was in his third year on the team. Raza was taking a redshirt during the 2014-15 school year, so he couldn’t qualify or participate in tournaments, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have things to work on in his golf game. In Raza’s case, it was putting, particularly short putts.
“Just as a lot of guys do, myself included, sometimes the three- to four-foot range can be a little bit of a mental block, and he had struggled with that off and on,” Martin says. “That was probably his hole in his game.”
At first they cycled through a variety of grips, trying to find one that would mitigate Raza’s overly dominant right hand. When that didn’t work, Martin proposed an experiment: For as long as it took, he would allow Raza to practice with an extra club in his bag, in this case a putter. And a left-handed one at that.
“At first I was pretty embarrassed,” Raza says. “I was like, really? I’m using two putters on the green?”
Martin asked him to give it a try, and he spread 10 balls around the green, close to the hole. Raza made almost all of them. Putting left-handed felt so different, Raza said, there was no flinch and no fear. Soon he was winning the team’s putting competitions and his teammates were crying foul that he was doing it with an extra club in his bag.
Two months later Raza returned to putting right-handed but did so with a new frame of mind and the confidence that if his right-handed putting stroke went awry again, he had an effective alternative. Martin’s idea had worked.
And a year later, it showed its worth. Raza sank a four-footer to earn the deciding point in Oregon’s NCAA championship semifinal vs. Illinois and the next day sank a seven-foot birdie putt vs. Texas to clinch the Ducks’ first NCAA title. Throughout the event, Raza says, he approached each putt as if he was back in practice with push-ups on the line.
“(Martin) wants us to get down to business and put pressure on us so that when we play in those kinds of situations, it feels normal to us,” Raza says.
Martin’s joy in the moment wasn’t just about his team winning college golf’s top prize, but also the way it happened. He calls Raza’s winning putt one of the highlights of his coaching career because it was a moment of peak success that was borne from past struggles.
It also was an endorsement of Martin’s competition-based coaching credo.
“I don’t claim to have a magic wand by any stretch at all,” he says. “I’ve learned a few core principles that I want everybody on my team doing. Everyone’s dealing with something. There is no master plan of knowing exactly what do in every situation, but we try to do get in there and help as best we can. And sometimes it works.”
Follow Daniel Uthman on Twitter @DanUthman