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Casey Martin
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A year later, Martin just trying to blend in

GAINESVILLE, Fla. Besides the scorekeepers, caddies and officials, there are only six people following Casey Martin around the course: three teen-age boys, an electrician who took the day off and a pair of retired schoolteachers.

Since they don't rope off the fairways on the Nike Tour, all six stand just a few feet behind Martin as he sizes up his second shot on the 520-yard, par-5.

There's a steady breeze in his face, but Martin plucks out his 5-wood and decides to go for the green. The ball knifes through the wind, easily clears the lake and lands just short of the fringe before taking two soft bounces and stopping 25 feet from the pin.

"Nice shot," one of the boys says. Martin looks at him, smiles and says "Thanks." Then he limps to his cart, sits down in the middle of the seat, steps on the accelerator with his left foot and drives toward the green.

Martin wishes golf were always this simple.

A year ago this week, however, that became impossible when he won the lawsuit that allowed him to ride a cart at PGA-sanctioned events.

The lawsuit instantly made him one of golf's most-recognizable figures, right up there with Tiger Woods.

Slowly over the last few months, the galleries have thinned out and the novelty has worn off. Meanwhile, Martin has begun dealing with this fact: It's his golf -- not his cart -- that will ultimately determine whether he stays in the spotlight or fades away like hundreds of other young, struggling players on the Nike Tour.

And that's just fine with him.

"It's been encouraging with all the people who have come out to support me," Martin said at the Nike Florida Classic, where he finished 14th and never saw anything close to the galleries he was drawing last year.

"But it wears on you. Especially when you're not getting attention because you're Tiger or David Duval, where you're just dominating. You're getting it for something else. It's nice to be getting back to normal now."

Martin opened last season looking as if his stay on the Nike Tour would be a short one. He shot a 19-under 269 at the season-opening Nike Lakeland Classic a month before his lawsuit was argued.

But the Lakeland Classic still stands as his only professional victory. He finished 29th on the Nike money list last year, not high enough to make the regular PGA Tour.

So, he's back on the Nike Tour, where he hopes that without all the attention he can reach the potential people recognized when he was a second-team All-American at Stanford in 1994.

"It's not like I was going into tournaments, hitting bad shots and saying, `Oh, look at all the attention I'm getting, I hit a bad shot because of that,"' Martin said. "But there were times when I'm sure it had an affect on me, as far as being mentally fatiguing."

It also remains a physical drain, no matter what some of his most outspoken critics -- including Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Ken Venutri -- might think.

He has almost constant pain in his right hip and leg because of a rare circulatory disease that makes it difficult for him to walk. Even the short walks he takes from the cart to the ball -- or up a small hill to move onto the green -- appear awkward and painful.

And as much as he wants to be just another one of the guys on the tour, the cart will always separate him from them on the course.

"Logistically, it's a nightmare playing golf in a cart when everyone else is walking," he said. "Rhythm-wise, it's a big negative.''

Curt Byrum, a longtime pro on the regular and Nike tours, said any resentment other players might have had appears to be gone.

"He's a good, young golfer, he's courteous and I haven't noticed any problems playing with him," said Byrum, who played the first two rounds with Martin at the Nike Florida Classic last week. "If there are some hard feelings about him playing in a cart, I don't notice them."

Neither does Martin.

"It might be out there, but I don't experience it personally," he said. "People might be bummed out about the decision, but at least from what I can tell, it doesn't seem to be a big, hot topic anymore. I've proven the fact that I wasn't getting a huge advantage."

In three tournaments this year, Martin has finished 57th and 14th and failed to make the cut in the other.

He's feeling good about his game and the battle he fought and won. An appeal filed by the PGA is pending, but Martin isn't sure when it will be heard.

Meanwhile, he plans to focus on the Nike Tour again this season and won't aggressively pursue sponsor exemptions for PGA events.

"I got my taste of what's out there last year," he said of the U.S. Open, where he tied for 23rd, and the Greater Hartford Open, where he missed the cut.

"I'm just content to play here, get better and hopefully get there the way everyone else does."

He knows, however, that it may already be too late for that.

TRW