Gerina Piller is the exception to the rule in women’s golf these days, and it’s what makes her climb in the American ranks compelling.
She’s the kind of athlete who thrived in the LPGA in a bygone era.
And by bygone era, that’s meant as turn of the century ... the 21st century.
Piller is old school in the way Beth Daniel, Betsy King and Juli Inkster were, as all-around athletes who thrived in more than one sport before finding their way to golf and success as collegiate players and then the LPGA.
You don’t see that at the top of the women’s game anymore with some of the best players winning professional events before they can even drive a car.
Lydia Ko won her first LPGA title as an amateur when she was 15.
Lexi Thompson turned pro when she was 15 and won her first LPGA title a little over a year later.
Brooke Henderson won her first professional title as an amateur when she was 14.
Stacy Lewis is the only player among the top 15 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings today who played in college.
Every single winner in the 11 LPGA events staged this year turned pro as a teenager.
Piller? She didn’t begin playing golf until she was 15, and yet she is beginning to blossom now as a 31-year-old veteran who made her way to the LPGA the old-fashioned way.
Piller grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, playing a lot of sports. She played softball and basketball and ran track. She was an all-state volleyball player in high school and played golf at the University of Texas El-Paso. She honed her craft playing the Futures Tour (now the Symetra Tour) before earning fully exempt LPGA status at age 24.
“Gerina is definitely an old-school throwback,” Inkster said. “She will tell you she grew up a tomboy, playing baseball with the boys. She has an old-school mind, too. She loves golf, and it’s important to her, but it’s not her No. 1 thing. Her No. 1 thing is her family and her husband, Martin.”
Inkster has become a friend and mentor to Piller, and you can see why. They share so many interests and a common pathway to the game they now love most.
“If there’s anyone I would like to be like when I grow up, it’s Juli Inkster,” Piller said. “I get nothing but amazing advice from her.”
Like Piller, Inkster was also 15 when she took up golf. Inkster, 55 now, played softball, basketball and tennis in school. She was in swimming and ran track, and she played golf at San Jose State before joining the LPGA. Daniel played basketball, softball and tennis and ran track before going to Furman. King’s multisport background before heading to Furman included field hockey.
Today, if you don’t commit full time to golf before you’ve reached your teenage years, you’re in an uphill battle trying to get where Piller’s trying to get. She’s trying to win her first LPGA title and crack the top 15 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings to become eligible for the U.S. Olympic team.
Piller has her game right there. She tied for second at the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout last week and tied for third at the Swinging Skirts Classic the week before. She has recorded six top-10 finishes in her last seven starts, and she’s right back in the hunt this week at the Yokohama Tire Classic. With a 4-under-par 68 Friday, Piller was tied for fourth when she signed her scorecard, four shots off the lead.
Back when Piller buried that clutch putt pivotal to the American Solheim Cup victory in Germany last fall, she was No. 40 in the world. She’s No. 17 today.
Piller kissed the Solheim Cup in 2015 after making a crucial putt in singles. (Getty)
“Gerina is really good,” said Inkster, who captained Piller on that Solheim Cup team. “Growing up, she didn’t play in all the USGA girls events or the U.S. Amateurs. She didn’t play the amateur circuit, and she didn’t realize just how good she could be, how good she is.
“I’ve played with her pretty much every week in a practice round for a year and a half, maybe more, and I just keep telling her, `You’re really good.’ It takes people a little longer to believe it sometimes. I think not competing at a high level as an amateur, she didn’t really know how she stacked up, professionally, but she is just learning that now. Really, she’s still learning the game, but I think the sky’s the limit for her.”
Piller concedes her confidence has long lagged behind her skills, but she’s gaining more with every run into contention.
At the Texas Shootout last week, Piller took her first 54-hole lead into the final round of an LPGA event but refused to beat herself up about failing to close the deal with Jenny Shin passing her to win.
“Jenny just outplayed me,” Piller said. “The conditions were tough, and she was really impressive.
“I don’t look back saying shoulda, woulda, coulda. What stands out to me is that I was close to the lead in the first round, took the lead in the second round and held on to the lead in the third round having never done that before. And I was comfortable doing it. In the final round, I was never out of it. I was still pushing the gas pedal. I just focused on what I did well.”
Piller has star quality as a big hitter with cover-girl looks, an All-American persona and a sneaky good sense of humor. She can hold her own in good-natured ribbing with Inkster.
As part of a husband-wife team striving to reach their golf dreams together, Piller’s story has gained added appeal. While Gerina was in contention to win in the final round of the Swinging Skirts Classic two weeks ago, Martin was in the hunt trying to win the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open. They both finished among the top four.
Martin provided his own shade while following Gerina in the Texas Shootout. (Getty)
As Gerina warmed up on the range in San Francisco to start the final round, Martin was already on the course in Texas. She sneaked peeks between practice shots to see how he was doing and got updates while on the course.
“It was actually kind of cool, because it kind of took my mind off my game and what I had to do,” Gerina said. “I was more worried about him than I was my own game.”
Martin is proud to say his wife’s the more accomplished player in the family. He doesn’t mind seeing her higher on LPGA leaderboards than he is on PGA Tour leaderboards.
“I don't care if she beats me,” Martin said. “I only care if guys out [on the PGA Tour] beat me. That's my main concern. If I'm getting whipped up every week out here, OK, now I'm concerned.
“Her being in contention wasn't anything new because she does that a lot. The only thing that was new was me being in contention. My game has been pretty good all year but as far as being in the mix to win it, it hasn't really happened until now.”
Pure Silk and Barbasol have taken the Pillers’ story into the living rooms of audiences outside of golf with their new commercial. In it, Martin and Gerina have some fun with how their competitive natures affect life at home. They’re shown competing at checkers, pingpong, cooking and even doing rock, paper and scissors to see who takes out the trash.
Gerina says it isn’t that much of an exaggeration.
“We compete a lot, but not necessarily at golf,” she said. “It’s things like seeing who can get cell phone service first after our plane lands, or who has more cell phone battery life left at the end of the day. One time after church, we were both finishing cups of coffee, and all of a sudden we’re running to see who can get their empty Starbucks’ cup in the trash can first. We look at each other sometimes like, `What’s wrong with us?’”
Piller is laughing when she says this, because there were scenes during the filming of their commercial where Martin had her giggling so much they had to do multiple takes to get scenes right. Martin’s sense of humor helped him win her heart, and so did his Christian faith. When they first met playing golf in a NASCAR outing in Texas in 2009, they didn’t know they were both attending the same Dallas/Fort Worth area church.
“I didn’t have a very good first impression of him,” Gerina said. “At the time, I was putting my relationship with guys on the back burner. I wanted to focus on rededicating myself to the Lord and to focus on my golf.”
Gerina thought Martin was a little cocky in their first round of golf together, but Martin’s humor and his faith worked their way into her heart.
“We played golf again the next week,” Gerina said. “I thought I could learn something from him, and he was a little more tolerable the next time we played. I thought he was funny and laid back and dorky in a fun way. He wasn’t afraid to be different, and I liked that.”
And she liked his devotion to his faith.
In fact, as they were starting to date, Martin suggested they listen to a podcast together about Christian romance based on a study of the Bible’s Song of Solomon. Gerina was leaving for LPGA Q-School, and Martin for PGA Tour Q-School. When they called each other while on the road, they talked about what they were learning in the Song of Solomon.
“To see him set self aside for the Lord, to submit himself to Christ, it was humbling to see,” Gerina said. “I found it very attractive.”
When the Pillers are home, they don’t talk a lot of golf. There is their faith, but there are also the teams they love. They’re both big sports fans. Martin is a huge Cowboys fan, Gerina loves the Texas Rangers. They also root for the Dallas Mavericks and the Stars.
“Our neighbors think all we do is eat pizza and watch sports on TV,” Gerina said. “We do spend a lot of time with our families.”
They spend a lot of time with Martin’s family in Dallas, and they take a lot of trips to see Gerina’s family in New Mexico.
“We go fishing, we four-wheel in the mountains, we hunt for arrowheads,” Gerina said. “My family doesn’t play golf, and I think that’s a blessing.”
Gerina and Martin married five years ago this past January. They would like to expand their families with children of their own, but they aren’t quite certain when that will be.
“When people ask me when we’re going to have kids, I tell them I have to actually see my husband to get pregnant,” Gerina joked. “Let’s start there.”
With their busy tournament schedules, the Pillers spend a lot of time away from each other. They spent 142 days away from each other in their first year of marriage.
“I would love to have kids and play golf, Lord willing,” Gerina said. “Golf’s so unpredictable, and we don’t know what’s in store for us there. I don’t ever want to say my career is more important than family, because I do have a strong desire to start a family, but I’m only 31. I don’t feel like my clock is ticking. Maybe if I’m 39, I’ll feel like I’m in the two-minute warning.”
Piller would love to follow Inkster’s footsteps as a mom on tour. Inkster raised two daughters while playing the LPGA.
“Juli’s been great,” Piller said. “She tells me, `You can do this. You can be pregnant and play golf.’ One of these days, Martin and I will just say, `OK, we’re ready.’”
If Piller becomes a mom on tour, she will really solidify herself as old school.