By: Beth Ann Nichols | March 23, 2017 3:09 pm
The first time Mo Martin represented her country in competition she was 8 years old. The Junior World Japan Cup offered an all-expense paid trip to the player and a guardian. Her father, Allen, scraped together enough money to bring along her brother as well.
Allen decided after the tournament they needed to tour Tokyo before departing, so he borrowed money from other dads to purchase overnight train tickets. Only the train stopped in Tokyo at 11 p.m.
Allen, a struggling defense attorney, told his kids they could sleep on a park bench while he kept watch. Mo wasn’t having it. She demanded her father hand over whatever money he had left.
“I wish he was around so I could get the exact amounts again,” said Mo, “but it was either $10 or $20. That was it. That was all the money we had.”
A determined young Mo marched down the street and into the first hotel she came across – alone. Barely able to see over the front desk, she put the wad of cash on the counter and said: “I need a hotel room.”
The Japanese woman shot back a look of shock and sympathy. She disappeared into an office and returned with someone who agreed to the 8-year-old American’s terms.
Mo went outside and fetched her family.
Mighty Mo would go on to represent the U.S. in Japan three more times before high school. Her father died of a heart attack at age 60 when Mo was 19 years old.
“The most he saw was me getting to college on a scholarship,” Mo said. “That was his goal for me.”
Could that feisty 8-year-old possibly imagine a day when she’d make a living competing in Asia for guaranteed money, staying in plush hotels as an LPGA major winner?
“Oh god no,” Martin said, laughing.
She was one shot off the lead late in play Thursday at the LPGA’s Kia Classic in Carlsbad, Calif.
The next time Martin puts on the red, white and blue might be in West Des Moines, Iowa, a world away from her patriotic debut.
The 34-year-old finds herself fighting to represent the U.S. at the Solheim Cup, the biggest spectacle in women’s golf. The top eight automatically qualify for the team of 12.
“She’s a bulldog,” U.S. captain Juli Inkster said. “She’s got heart, and that’s who I want on my team.”
The straightest player on tour, Martin employs four fairway metals (no hybrids). Asking her to pick a favorite, she said, is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. Her stock 9-wood, for example, goes 165-170 yards, but she can work the ball both ways to increase its range.
Martin led the tour in 2016, with 1,268 fairways hit. That’s 76 more than her closest competitor, Chella Choi. Overall, she hit 86 percent of fairways.
“We’ve got a lot of bombers,” Inkster said, “but we need some consistency.”
The 5-foot-1 Martin, while straight as a board, finished 2016 ranked 155th on the tour in average driving distance at 237.311 yards, ahead of only three players.
Inkster believes Martin would be great at alternate shot because she’s reliable, but Golf Channel analyst Karen Stupples thinks it might be difficult to find Martin the right partner. For longer players, Stupples said, greens will look unusually small playing from a Martin-sized drive.
Meanwhile, Martin isn’t used to playing from anywhere but the center of the fairway.
In four-ball competition and singles, however, Martin would likely be the first to hit approach shots into par 4s and could pour on the pressure with her handy fairway metals.
“That’s the kind of player that could get under somebody’s skin,” former Solheim captain Judy Rankin said.
Martin’s strongest attribute sits atop her small frame. She’s an overcomer who didn’t receive her first set of matching clubs until she walked on at UCLA. Until then her mismatched set included her father’s 2-iron.
Growing up, money was tight. The Martins lived in a 900-square foot house in Pasadena, Calif., where Mo and her sister slept in the attic. A 98-pound Martin gained 20 pounds her first year of college because it was the first time in her life that she ate three square meals a day.
“I feel very lucky,” said Martin of her life on tour. “I don’t take anything for granted.”
Stacy Lewis believes Martin’s mature mind would be a strong asset to Team USA. Much of the Solheim Cup, Lewis said, comes down to handling pressure. And with record crowds expected in Iowa, it’s the kind of stage that could swallow a weaker player.
“When things get tight,” Lewis said, “she kind of puts a smile on her face.”
Stupples sees in Martin a fighter instinct that’s crucial to match play: I’m going to put you down, and I’m going to keep you down.
In January, Martin volunteered drive up from Naples, Fla., to Daytona Beach to speak at LPGA rookie orientation. Nancy Lopez happened to be there too, so Martin took the opportunity to ask her own rookie questions about the Solheim Cup.
The next week at the season-opening PureSilk Bahamas LPGA Classic, Martin relayed parts of that conversation to her caddie, Craig Castrale, who has experience of his own at the Solheim. He got goosebumps at the thought of it, seven months out.
“He said it’s the best nerves you’ll ever feel,” Martin said.