LINKS PLAYERS MAGAZINE 2016 ANNUAL EDITION

GAINING ON IT

Every week on the PGA Tour amounts to a gamble. No one pays you just for showing up. Those with a Tour card don’t pay entry fees and their equipment normally comes from their sponsoring manufacturers, but they do pay for their own travel, accommodations, and their meals, for their caddies, their coaches, and their trainers. That’s a lot of dollars, with no guarantee of a check. Miss the cut, and it’s an expenses-only kind of week. Ouch.

When you venture to Las Vegas, though, it seems like even more of a risky bet. Especially when your luck is down.

That was the case for Ben Martin when he came to the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open early in the 2014-15 season. The week before, he had shot 78-79 to miss the cut by the proverbial mile at the Frys.com Open. It was an ugly way to set up your confidence for Vegas.

Beautifully, though, Martin’s luck turned once he came into town. The steady swing of a fourth-year tour professional returned and the birdie putts started to fall. But the one thing Martin didn’t dare do was check the leaderboard. He left that to his caddie, Alex Boyd, and avoided nervous thinking.
In the end, Martin had two easy putts for the win over Kevin Streelman.

It’s easy to leave Las Vegas feeling like a million bucks when that’s what’s written on the winner’s check.

Ask Martin now about his favorite golf story and perhaps surprisingly he won’t talk about Las Vegas—still his lone Tour win as we moved into 2016. Instead he looks back to 2009, when he competed in his only U.S. Amateur Championship.

The Am that year was played at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Martin would go on to finish runner-up to Byeong-Hun An, a showing that earned him an invitation to the 2010 Masters. But it was a moment in the quarterfinals that most lingers for Martin.

Martin’s dad was caddying for him that day, and he was matched up against David Lingmerth, a winner on Tour just months after Martin. Lingmerth had established an early lead when they came to the par-5 fifth hole.

“One of the reasons I enjoy playing golf is to have a chance to win on Sunday, to get a little nervous, have the juices flowing.”“I drove it in the fairway and hit it in the greenside bunker in two,” Martin says. “My ball flew into the front of the bunker and rolled to the back of the bunker. I was kind of surveying the shot, figuring out where I was going to walk in, and seeing what the green looked like. My dad is a good golfer, so he knows the rules, but he had a little slipup. He asked me where I was going to walk in and then he thought for a second, Well, if I don’t rake this pitch mark where the ball flew in the bunker, I’m going to forget to after Ben hits.”

Martin recounts what happened next with the graciousness of hindsight. In a moment of mindlessness, his dad stepped into the bunker and raked the pitch mark. Loss of hole.

“I didn’t even get to hit the shot,” Martin says, “and I went two down.”

If Martin was angry, his dad felt terrible, and it was Ben who had to do the calming. “I told him, ‘We’ve still got 12 or 13 holes left to play, still a lot of golf left.’ I ended up coming back and winning the match 2-and-1 and saved him some heartache.”

Heartache, yes; ribbing, no.

The guys back at Greenwood Country Club in South Carolina, where Ben Martin learned the game playing with his dad, called Southern Hills and asked for a souvenir. The good folks at Southern Hills obliged. Go to Greenwood CC these days, and you might see why Ben Martin remembers this story so well. There on display are some photographs from that U.S. Amateur, dad alongside son. And one more thing: the infamous rake.

Maybe, though, there’s an enduring lesson in that memento.

“I think one of the biggest reasons I’ve been successful in golf is mainly due to my attitude and my default personality,” says Martin, in his thoughtful way. “I go with the flow and put things behind me—not get too up or down. But sometimes it’s tougher in that father-son relationship. You kind of get mad at your dad. It tested me a little bit to be able to overcome something like that.”

Success in golf, perhaps more than any other sport because of how long it allows athletes to compete at a high level, is measured over long periods of time. Even Tour wins aren’t collected until after 72 holes of play, or roughly 20 hours on the playing field. One shot late in a tournament can make a difference, but only because of all the other shots that have come before it. For this reason, level-headed players like Ben Martin seem to stick on Tour. There’s a defense they employ against the ill winds of the game.

Such a wind blew for Martin at The Players last spring. Considered by many to be the “fifth major,” it’s a coveted prize and one Martin came near to winning after three late birdies on Sunday tied him with the leaders. When he came to the narrow eighteenth, though, Martin drove it into the trees on the right, just as he had done twice before that week. He had no clear shot, had to chip out, and ended up missing a 15-foot putt that would have included him in the playoff eventually won by Rickie Fowler.

“Being in that moment was awesome,” Martin says, “and one of the reasons I enjoy playing golf is to have a chance to win on Sunday, to get a little nervous, have the juices flowing.

“But if I could go back and play that hole again…”

Martin knows it was the biggest tournament he had ever had a chance to win. But he also reminds himself that he wasn’t really sure he’d ever be in position to win on Tour.

“I was always a decent golfer, but I wasn’t even the best golfer on my high school team, I wasn’t the best golfer on my college team, so I thought the ultimate goal for me would be making it to the PGA Tour. I never really thought about winning on the PGA Tour, but just making it there would be it.”
Martin qualified for the Tour in his first try, though, right out of college. It was, according to him, “a bit unexpected,” and he had some real learning to do.

“My rookie year I’d see these guys practicing, hitting balls all the time, and that wasn’t anything I’d ever done. I thought, Hey, if everybody else is doing it, maybe that’s what I need to do.”

It didn’t work. Martin quickly wore himself out and had to find his own routine. At home his preferred practice regimen is to get out on the golf course. His range sessions are short—“by the time I’ve hit balls for an hour, I’ll have had five or six different thoughts, and by the sixth one I can’t remember what the first one was, so I’m not really doing myself any good.” If he concentrates on anything, it’s his short game and his putting. But like a lot of us, he’d rather just play.

So now he builds a different routine when he travels, staying away from the golf course on Mondays, and playing only nine holes on Tuesday if he’s entered in that week’s pro-am. It’s part of his strategy to beat the grind. So is thinking rightly, which means a little bit of “home cooking.”
“My mom always instilled a good perspective into my brother and me, not only in golf but in life,” Martin explains. “A bad day on the golf course is not really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.”

It doesn’t take long for this appreciation to turn to application: “Keeping the big picture in mind and trusting in what I’m doing and the game plan helps, because I’m going to have bad weeks, bad days, bad months. That’s just the way that life goes in anything. Golf is always a good metaphor for life, so I’m going to stick to what I know works and trust that in the coming time it’s going to get better. Golf can kind of drive you crazy sometimes, but I think that’s what makes it so much fun when you’re playing well.”

Martin is this reflective about many things, but he doesn’t think alone. His team includes Boyd, his caddie who played at Clemson with Martin, as well as his sport psychologist Milt Lowder and his swing coach, Scott Hamilton, who was a new addition for Martin late in 2015.

But there is one member of Martin’s team who gets his heart beating more than all the rest: his wife Kelly.

“She doesn’t tell me much about golf,” Martin jokes, “but she is another set of eyes that I trust a lot.”

“Golf can kind of drive you crazy sometimes, but I think that’s what makes it so much fun when you’re playing it.”Ben and Kelly Martin met in the spring of 2010, shortly before he was to play in his first Masters. They were introduced by a friend who tried to talk up Ben’s upcoming entry into the beloved major championship. “She knew what the Masters was, but she didn’t really know what it was,” he explains. More than that, she wasn’t even sure whether to believe this unlikely story.

But the two kept up their conversations and when an Augusta National member offered Ben some extra tickets, Ben told his mom that he planned on giving them to “this girl I met at a bar the other night.” His mom played it cool, and Kelly showed up at Augusta on Thursday with the friend who had introduced them. When Ben missed the cut, he and Kelly enjoyed what he says amounted to their first date: Sunday afternoon as spectators at the 2010 Masters, where Phil Mickelson secured his third green jacket.

The course of life pursued, including Ben’s early years on the Tour, but he and Kelly kept their relationship growing, and they were married in December 2013. She left her own work and started traveling with Ben on Tour, where they have ample opportunity to work out the “what God has brought together” aspect of their lives.

Yes, they believe that, so much so that Ben says, “When I’m pursuing Jesus and she’s pursuing Jesus, and because of that we’re pursuing each other, how much better a marriage we have versus times when we might get a little selfish and start thinking it’s all about us. That causes a rift. But to be able to have a marriage grounded in the Lord is—to be honest, I don’t know how people do it any other way.”
Not that Ben Martin has always thought like this. He grew up around church, where his father and his grandmother were among his Sunday school teachers. And when he completed his confirmation class in eighth grade, he thought, “Hey, I’ve punched my ticket. I got initiated. I’m in.” It was several years before he realized there was more to it.

“I was still a good kid, made good grades, stayed out of trouble,” Martin says in looking back. “Playing golf probably had a lot to do with that, because it took a lot of my time and I was passionate about it and I wanted to be successful at it. So really in high school and in college, if you had asked me, ‘Are you a Christian?,’ I would have said, ‘Yeah, I go to church and I’m not a Muslim, I’m not Jewish, I’m not atheist, I’m a Christian.’ But my faith never had much impact on how I lived my day-to-day life or my night life, especially in college.”

“When I really started to think about the resurrection, I realized that this was a pretty big claim. I was basing my eternal existence on whether this was true, on whether Jesus had done what only God can do.”In college at Clemson, Martin did take the time to go to four College Golf Fellowship retreats hosted by two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen. Martin was exposed, he says, “to the difference between the Gospel versus being a churchgoer. But I was pretty satisfied with the way my life was going, and I didn’t really want anything coming in there and screwing it up. So I wasn’t really receptive. But I knew that what the eighth grade Ben Martin had formulated about faith maybe wasn’t the clearest picture.”

That picture became clearer when Martin earned his Tour card and began to connect with some of the other players who were regulars at the weekly Bible study, including Zach Johnson and Jonathan Byrd. These studies were led by Larry Moody and Dave Krueger of Search Ministries. They recommended that Ben start meeting with one of their staff members, David Martin, at home in Greenville, South Carolina, where Ben had moved after college. So Ben and David began meeting for coffee and talking about faith in Christ.

“That’s when God began to show me that life wasn’t all about just being a good person and going to church on Sundays and going to the Bible studies, but it was about his Son Jesus and what he’d done for me,” Martin explains. “Before that, I figured that if the scales were balanced 50-50, then I’d be on the good side. But what I learned when God opened my eyes to the Gospel is that there are no scales. I’m never going to be good enough to measure up. I had to ask, What am I going to do about that? But I realized there was nothing I can do. That was one big part of it for me.

“The other part that helped me was to see the enormity of the resurrection of Jesus. I’d always kind of grown up in church, so I accepted that Jesus was the Son of God, was crucified, dead and buried, rose again on the third day. I had it down. But when I really started to think about the resurrection, I realized that this was a pretty big claim. I was basing my eternal existence on whether this was true, on whether Jesus had done what only God can do.”

That’s a lot of God-talk to swallow, particularly when you consider it’s coming from a professional athlete and not a preacher. Does this guy really have any idea what he’s talking about? But again, Martin didn’t come up with this thinking on his own in the beginning, and he doesn’t mull it over on his own now.

In addition to his conversations about faith with Kelly, Martin connects on a weekly conference call with five or six other PGA Tour players and College Golf Fellowship’s Brad Payne. “We talk through the problems we face and we grow together and encourage one another,” Martin says. “Having good rooted friendships is one of the first things I prayed for when I first started following Jesus. I wanted the Lord to introduce me to some people that were going to have a good impact on my life.”

Ben Martin has moved beyond just making it. His Tour card has turned into a Tour win and nearly $5 million in earnings during his short career. More than that is Martin’s understanding that eternity isn’t a game of good enough. You have to rely on someone outside of yourself to gain eternal life. That someone is Jesus.

There’s a starting point to faith like this, of course, a day when it all makes sense. For many, though, that can also be the stopping point. A seed planted, a sprout emerging, but only a little growth. Ben Martin is not one to think that way. In the metaphor come to life, he is always taking the moment and converting it into something bigger.

At the 2015 World Golf Championships-Cadillac Match Play event at Harding Park in San Francisco, Martin came to the seventeenth hole all square in his opening round match with Matt Kuchar. The hole was a par-3 stretching 243 yards from tee to flagstick. Kuchar stood by as Martin’s hybrid landed on the green, tracked to the cup, and fell in for an ace. Martin won the hole and took a 1-up lead with a hole to play.

What did this excitement do to Martin’s normally steady state of mind? Not much.

“More than anything,” Martin says, “I was trying really hard not to get too excited, because I didn’t want to be the guy who made the hole-in-one on seventeen to go one up then lost eighteen to end up losing the match. I wanted to capitalize on the ace.”

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle wrote of always running to win the eternal prize. The race may have started the day he first said yes to Jesus, but Paul would not allow himself to be disqualified for running aimlessly.

And so it is with Ben Martin’s golf and with his faith. There is much to celebrate—and much still to learn and to do.

  • Ben Martin

    1 PGA Tour Win: 2015 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open