Why Mo Martin matters so much
When does pursuing a dream become chasing a fantasy? There were probably a few times during the six years that Mo Martin spent in golf's "minor leagues" when she wasn't sure which one she was doing.
But only a few, which is part of why Martin's victory Sunday in the Women's British Open is so remarkable and heartwarming. During all those days playing for little money while traveling as cheaply as possible across the country to do it, Martin said she almost always woke up in a good mood and with a positive outlook.
This week -- and from now on -- she will wake up as the winner of an LPGA major championship.
In a year that's had Paula Creamer's 75-foot winning putt in a playoff and an 11-year-old competing in the U.S. Women's Open, could something else in women's golf seem even more improbable?
Yes -- Mo Martin winning a major. This could be a Disney movie that wouldn't have to be "based on" a true story. It could be 100 percent as it really happened, with no need for embellishment or manufactured drama. The script writes itself.
Martin is 31 years old, and until her triumph Sunday at Royal Birkdale, her best result on the LPGA Tour had been a tie for third in 2013. That also had been her only previous top-10 finish. Just earning her LPGA card for her 2012 rookie season at age 29 had been an odyssey.
A native of California, she took up golf as a child and eventually became a successful college player after walking on at UCLA. She helped the Bruins win an NCAA championship and earned a degree in psychology.
Then came the half-dozen years when Martin toiled in the "minors." The so-called Futures Tour in women's golf has existed in various forms since the early 1980s, and it became the LPGA's official developmental circuit in 1999. Now it's called the Symetra Tour and, for the most part, is based in medium-sized U.S. cities. Total purses this year average around $100,000, with winners getting about $15,000.
Playing on the Symetra Tour is supposed to be a means to an end, and ideally, no one wants to do it for long. The goal, of course, is to advance as quickly as possible to the LPGA, where there is the chance of more financial stability because the purses are larger.
If you're in your teens or early 20s on the Symetra Tour, hope for reaching the LPGA is easier to maintain. You're a golfing nomad, often with much of what you own in the back of your car. You become an expert on the best cheap places to stay and eat. You try to imagine the cheers, even on those holes where your only gallery consists of squirrels and birds. You bond with, celebrate with and cry with your fellow dreamers.
But when you get the tag of "veteran" on the developmental tour, you have to wonder if it's time to find another occupation.
Martin started the 2011 season as a Symetra Tour veteran. She was a 28-year-old in a sport whose world No. 1 player at that time, Yani Tseng, was 22. Certainly there were other things Martin could do with her life. How long would she keep trying to become an LPGA player?
But 2011 was, at last, her breakthrough year. She had 11 top-10 finishes, including one victory, and earned full playing privileges for the 2012 LPGA season. However, that was still just another beginning.
Martin had to play well enough to stay on the LPGA Tour and do so against the best players in the world. She was able to win around $170,000 her first LPGA season and nearly $320,000 her second. She didn't hit the ball far, but she was uncannily on target.
This year, her best finish coming into the Women's British Open was a tie for 13th. She had missed five cuts.
The winners of the two previous LPGA majors, Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie, have stories that are very different from Martin's. They became millionaires while still teenagers -- heck, Thompson still is a teenager.
They are big hitters, especially Thompson, the 19-year-old who leads the LPGA in average driving distance at 271.3 yards, nearly 40 yards more than Martin averages off the tee. Thompson and Wie have had to work hard for their success, but they are also naturally quite gifted. Neither had to grind it out on the Symetra Tour, let alone do so for six years.
Yet this makes golf both interesting and vexing: Supremely talented players don't win all the time. Sometimes they aren't even in the hunt. That was the case at this Women's British Open as Thompson tied for 54th, 15 shots behind Martin, and Wie missed the cut.
As Martin's first LPGA Tour victory sank in -- she was on the driving range, practicing in case of a playoff -- television cameras caught her priceless expression, a mix of disbelief and euphoria. She said, "Is this real life?"
It was indeed, and Martin's life changes in some good ways now. The first-place prize of $474,575 is a significant sum to the average person, and Martin is much closer to that than to golf's high-rent district. Martin said she would be able to help her family secure ownership of her beloved late grandfather's ranch in California.
This major title also gives her some leverage in terms of sponsorships and other opportunities that can come along for a professional athlete with not just an inspiring tale, but also a big trophy. And she now has a 10-year exemption into the Women's British Open.
The victory propelled Martin up 73 spots in the Rolex world rankings to No. 26, and from No. 53 on the LPGA season money list to No. 15. From now on, she will be announced as "2014 Women's British Open champion." That lasts forever.
Admittedly, there are one-hit wonders in terms of major titles in the history of the LPGA and PGA tours. And there are LPGA courses that reward length and aren't penal for leaving the fairway -- the kinds of places that aren't suited for Martin's game. But the bottom line is she now knows she can beat the best players on her tour.
On Sunday, Martin thanked all the "angels" who had helped her -- financially and emotionally -- during the years when things were lean. And she undoubtedly gave energy to those currently on the Symetra Tour.
For that matter, she gave a boost to everyone who can't quite let go of an unfulfilled dream.
Maybe, like Mo, they don't have to.