Mo Martin’s Long Journey to the L.P.G.A.
By LISA D. MICKEY –
The L.P.G.A. Tour arrives this week at its fourth major of the year, the L.P.G.A. Championship in Pittsford, N.Y., with an American golfer having won the previous three.
Lexi Thompson, the 19-year-old Kraft Nabisco champion, and Michelle Wie, the 24-year-old winner of the United States Women’s Open, are former prodigies who fulfilled their potential by earning their first major titles.
But Mo Martin, the Women’s British Open champion, took a different road to her golf breakthrough.
Known for playing a sparkling short game with a 5-foot-2 frame, Martin, 31, had a challenging childhood with limited financial resources to pursue golf, and spent six years on the developmental tour before earning L.P.G.A. status in 2012.
“None of my life was really groomed to be a professional golfer, and the odds were definitely stacked against that throughout my life,” she said in a recent telephone interview.
Martin’s golf journey did not start with the best swing coaches or summers playing the junior circuit. It started in her driveway in Altadena, Calif., as she hit balls into a net while her father, Allen Martin, referred to Ben Hogan’s book “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.” (Born Melissa, Martin was called Mighty Mo by her family, after the battleship U.S.S. Missouri.)
“My dad’s vision was just to get me into college on a scholarship through golf,” she said. “We didn’t have the resources for me to play a lot of junior golf outside of California, and there were times when anonymous donors stepped up and helped.”
When Martin was 8, she was able to compete in a tournament in Japan, where she defeated Lorena Ochoa, who would become a two-time major winner and a four-time L.P.G.A. player of the year. After the tournament, Martin said, she and her father found themselves with only $20 and one night left in Japan. Her father had figured they could sleep on the train, but when it stopped running at midnight, his next plan was for them to spend the night on a park bench.
“I told my dad I was not sleeping in the park and to give me whatever money he had,” Martin said. “I marched over to a local hotel, put the $20 on the counter and said, ‘I need a room.’ I remember not being tall enough to see over the front desk.”
While she called her father “a genius,” she acknowledged that he did not always provide a stable home environment. Allen Martin was a defense lawyer whose clients did not always pay for his services, and he was also a gambler, she said.
At another junior event, Martin and her father borrowed her sister’s old Volkswagen Karmann Ghia to drive to San Diego, about 140 miles south. One of the car’s belts broke on Interstate 5, so they pulled over and ran across the freeway to a J. C. Penney store, where they bought pantyhose, Martin said. Her father made a makeshift belt for the car out of the hosiery, which got them to San Diego.
They had nowhere to stay, so they slept on lawn chairs at a hotel pool and Martin used the restroom at the golf course to get ready each morning.
“At night, my dad picked up range balls so I’d have balls to hit the next morning,” Martin said.
Martin’s grandfather, Lincoln Martin, drove down to watch her play and paid for a hotel room for the next two nights. At the time, her grandfather was an infrequent presence in Martin’s life, estranged from the family because of a rift over his son’s behavior. But Lincoln Martin would later take on a large role in his granddaughter’s golf career.
Martin walked on to the U.C.L.A. women’s golf team in 2000 and impressed Coach Carrie Forsyth with her spunk.
“Mo’s a real fighter, and she’s always been tenacious,” Forsyth said. “She was small and didn’t hit it very far, but she had a very creative short game, and the mental strength was already there.”
Martin was awarded a scholarship the next year and become an integral part of the Bruins’ team. But her junior year, her father died of a heart attack.
“It was sudden and very painful for Mo,” Forsyth said. “It rocked her foundation.”
After her father’s death, the 20-year-old Martin drove to her grandfather’s citrus ranch in Porterville, Calif. When she walked into his study, she was shocked to see news clippings, photos and statistical printouts of her junior and amateur career plastered on his walls.
After graduating from U.C.L.A., Martin approached several members of Annandale Golf Club in Pasadena, Calif., where she worked to support her mother, and asked if they would give her a loan to help start a professional career. Ten members combined to give her $40,000 to play the Futures Tour, the L.P.G.A.’s feeder tour, now called the Symetra Tour.
Martin drove to tournaments in her Chrysler PT Cruiser for six years, staying with housing hosts and paying her debt with her winnings. She was able to stay on the tour because of her sponsors, winning three times and earning automatic 2012 L.P.G.A. membership by finishing third on the Futures Tour’s 2011 money list.
Her grandfather, who held patents in geophysics and aeronautical engineering, saw all three of Martin’s Futures Tour victories. He attended as many as 10 tournaments a year in his late 90s.
At age 100 and 101, he attended several of her L.P.G.A. tournaments, once flipping his scooter while following his granddaughter on the course. When medics rushed over and asked him what had happened, Martin said he told them, “My granddaughter just made a birdie!”
Lincoln Martin died in March at 102, and Mo Martin recently used her golf winnings to pay for a new roof on his house, which she has helped keep in the family.
“He taught me how to love, how to live and how to die,” said Martin, who has a thumb injury entering Thursday’s first round at the L.P.G.A. Championship. “It’s an incredible gift that my family has always treated me the same, no matter how I play.”
Lincoln Martin did not live to see his granddaughter standing on the 18th hole at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in the final round of the Women’s British Open last month.
The tee overlooked a wishbone-shaped par-5 hole that featured two choices: a shorter but more narrow and bunker-lined fairway on the right; and a left fairway in which vegetation completely blocked her view from the tee, but offered a better angle toward her target if she played the prevailing 25-mile-per-hour wind.
Martin, ranked 99th at the time, played the wind and hit her tee shot 247 yards into the fairway. Her 3-wood shot into the green hit the flagstick and dropped to within six feet.
One of the tour’s shortest hitters, Martin tapped in for eagle, her only one this season, and the clubhouse lead at one under par.
Knowing top-ranked players like Inbee Park, Jessica Korda and Suzann Pettersen were one stroke back with two par-5 holes to play, Martin began preparing for a playoff with about 75 minutes to wait.
But the playoff never came. When her caddie, Kyle Morrison, told Martin she had won, she looked at him and said, “Is this real life?”
“She’s a gamer, and I can’t tell you how many putts she makes on the last hole on a regular basis,” Morrison said. “It might sound strange, but she’s not focused on the end result. She focused on the journey.”