SAN FRANCISCO – Time embellishes all tales. Years go by and the mundane becomes interesting, the interesting becomes outrageous, the outrageous becomes exceedingly unbelievable.
The following story sounds easily amplified, enhanced for the benefit of dinner-table conversation and back-room banter.
And it could be, except for one little detail: There remains concrete evidence – or at least a pretty telling paper trail.
Eighteen years ago, two college kids played on the same golf team. Separated by three years, they may not have been the best of buddies, but the relationship quickly took on mentor-mentee proportions. One was a senior; he walked with a limp, but also carried a mercurial short game. The other was a freshman; skinny yet super-talented and armed with a cool nickname.
Their common bond was one of competitiveness. It showed in their matches against other schools, sure, but really reared its head during intrasquad putting matches after practice. Camped out on the green next to the 10th hole at their home course, the senior always enlisted one of his brethren as a teammate while the freshman partnered with a fellow underclassman.
Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the seniors swept a large majority of the matches. And perhaps it’s hardly noteworthy all these years later, but the freshman paid up – even once to the tune of a $190 check.
No, this would all be just a footnote in the annals of history – a lively story for the parties involved, free of any embellishment – until it’s revealed that the main characters of this tale competed for Stanford University.
The senior was Casey Martin. The freshman was Tiger Woods.
And yes, there’s proof.
“One day we had a match,” Martin recalled Monday. “We were leaving the next day on a trip. And [Tiger] says, ‘I'll come out and let me try to earn it back.’ He might have been down 40 bucks or something.
“Well, I putted very well, and he kept trying to push the envelope and I kept winning and I think I won $190, which is a lot for a college kid. And he brought me a check. And it says: ‘To Casey Martin from Tiger Woods, $190.’ So I Xeroxed it, sent it home. My mother cashed it, but then she put it in the scrapbook, so it's official. You can come track it down. It happened.”
The story remains relevant so many years later, as Martin and Woods have taken clearly divergent paths to reach the same destination this week, both competing in the 112th U.S. Open Championship at The Olympic Club, not far from their Stanford roots.
Martin, of course, tried to make it as a touring professional, famously winning a Supreme Court case which allowed him the use of a cart during competitive rounds because of the effect Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome has incurred on his right leg. Meanwhile, Woods’ career has become the stuff of legend, as he’s compiled 73 career PGA Tour victories and 14 major championship titles at the age of 36.
Until this week, they hadn’t seen each other in years, the University of Oregon coach rarely getting a chance to catch up with the jetsetting pro. It’s the nature of a truly “open” championship, though, in which for one week two men with distinctly opposite journeys can stand on equal footing in the same spotlight.
“It’s amazing how it’s panned out,” said Conrad Ray, the current Stanford head coach who usually served as the underclassman teammate to Woods in those post-practice putting contests. “It’s pretty surreal. I think there are a lot of common threads. Even though they’ve gone down different paths, I still think the common thread is that they’re both ultimate competitors. They want to win and they usually do. You can see that in whatever Casey has done and whatever Tiger has done, too.”
“They both have established tremendous precedence and taken on the establishment in different regards,” added Notah Begay, a PGA Tour pro and the fourth member of those matches. “Tiger in the way he plays and the fact that he’s African-American and has brought so many people to the game. Casey in that he’s taken one of the most powerful institutions to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.”
Perhaps that’s why, so many years later, there remains such mutual admiration between the two men. Time may have eroded the friendship slightly, as it does to so many contemporaries from college. But time hasn’t embellished their tale, hasn’t added conjecture or hyperbole to the good ol’ days.
This week, they will play at least one practice round together. One more chance for Casey and Tiger to relive their college days before starting on equal footing as fellow competitors once again.
The mentor has other things in mind, too. He wants some more of his mentee’s money, although he understands it may be a bit trickier than when he was a wide-eyed Stanford freshman.
“The word on street is it's hard to get,” Martin said with a laugh. “He doesn't like to pay. Don't say that; this is probably live, so don't tell him that. But I know that it's tough to get that wallet out. At least that's what I've been told.”
He should take solace armed with the knowledge of one point of information: Tiger Woods does know how to write a check.
Casey Martin owns the proof.