Late-blooming Piller an LPGA throwback

By Randall MellMay 6, 2016, 7:39 pm

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.

Getty Images

Teenager Im wins season opener

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 10:23 pm

South Korea's Sungjae Im cruised to a four-shot victory at The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic, becoming just the second teenager to win an event on the Tour.

Im started the final day of the season-opening event in a share of the lead but still with six holes left in his third round. He was one shot behind Carlos Ortiz when the final round began, but moved ahead of the former Player of the Year thanks to a 7-under 65 in rainy and windy conditions. Im's 13-under total left him four clear of Ortiz and five shots ahead of a quartet of players in third.

Still more than two months shy of his 20th birthday, Im joins Jason Day as the only two teens to win on the developmental circuit. Day was 19 years, 7 months and 26 days old when he captured the 2007 Legend Financial Group Classic.

Recent PGA Tour winners Si Woo Kim and Patrick Cantlay and former NCAA champ Aaron Wise all won their first Tour event at age 20.

Other notable finishes in the event included Max Homa (T-7), Erik Compton (T-13), Curtis Luck (T-13) and Lee McCoy (T-13). The Tour will remain in the Bahamas for another week, with opening round of The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic set to begin Sunday.

Getty Images

Mickelson grouped with Z. Johnson at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 8:28 pm

He's not the highest-ranked player in this week's field, but Phil Mickelson will likely draw the biggest crowd at the CareerBuilder Challenge as he makes his first start of 2018. Here are a few early-round, marquee groupings to watch as players battle the three-course rotation in the Californian desert (all times ET):

12:10 p.m. Thursday, 11:40 a.m. Friday, 1:20 p.m. Saturday: Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson

Mickelson is making his fourth straight trip to Palm Springs, having cracked the top 25 each of the last three times. In addition to their respective amateur partners, he'll play the first three rounds alongside a fellow Masters champ in Johnson, who tied for 14th last week in Hawaii and finished third in this event in 2014.

11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Jon Rahm, Bubba Watson

At No. 3 in the world, Rahm is the highest-ranked player teeing it up this week and the Spaniard returns to an event where he finished T-34 last year in his tournament debut. He'll play the first two rounds alongside Watson, who is looking to bounce back from a difficult 2016-17 season and failed to crack the top 50 in two starts in the fall.

11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Patrick Reed, Brandt Snedeker

Reed made the first big splash of his career at this event in 2014, shooting three straight rounds of 63 en route to his maiden victory. He'll be joined by Snedeker, whose bid for a Masters bid via the top 50 of the world rankings came up short last month and who hasn't played this event since a missed cut in 2015.

1:10 p.m. Thursday, 12:40 p.m. Friday, 12:10 p.m. Saturday: Patton Kizzire, Bill Haas

Kizzire heads east after a whirlwind Sunday ended with his second win of the season in a six-hole playoff over James Hahn in Honolulu. He'll play alongside Haas, who won this event in both 2010 and 2015 to go with a runner-up finish in 2011 and remains the tournament's all-time leading money winner.

Getty Images

Mackay still a caddie at heart, even with a microphone

By Doug FergusonJanuary 16, 2018, 7:34 pm

HONOLULU – All it took was one week back on the bag to remind Jim ''Bones'' Mackay what he always loved about being a caddie.

It just wasn't enough for this to be the ultimate mic drop.

Mackay traded in his TV microphone at the Sony Open for the 40-pound bag belonging to Justin Thomas.

It was his first time caddying since he split with Phil Mickelson six months ago. Mackay was only a temporary replacement at Waialae for Jimmy Johnson, a good friend and Thomas' regular caddie who has a nasty case of plantar fasciitis that will keep him in a walking boot for the next month.

''The toughest thing about not caddying is missing the competition, not having a dog in the fight,'' Mackay said before the final round. ''There's nothing more rewarding as a caddie, in general terms, when you say, 'I don't like 6-iron, I like 7,' and being right. I miss that part of it.''

The reward now?

''Not stumbling over my words,'' he said. ''And being better than I was the previous week.''

He has done remarkably well since he started his new job at the British Open last summer, except for that time he momentarily forgot his role. Parts of that famous caddie adage – ''Show up, keep up, shut up'' – apparently can apply to golf analysts on the ground.

During the early hours of the telecast, before Johnny Miller came on, Justin Leonard was in the booth.

''It's my job to report on what I see. It's not my job to ask questions,'' Mackay said. ''I forgot that for a minute.''

Leonard was part of a booth discussion on how a comfortable pairing can help players trying to win a major. That prompted Mackay to ask Leonard if he found it helpful at the 1997 British Open when he was trying to win his first major and was paired with Fred Couples in the final round at Royal Troon.

''What I didn't know is we were going to commercial in six seconds,'' Mackay said. ''I would have no way of knowing that, but I completely hung Justin out to dry. He's now got four seconds to answer my long-winded question.''

During the commercial break, the next voice Mackay heard belonged to Tommy Roy, the executive golf producer at NBC.

''Bones, don't ever do that again.''

It was Roy who recognized the value experienced caddies could bring to a telecast. That's why he invited Mackay and John Wood, the caddie for Matt Kuchar, into the control room at the 2015 Houston Open so they could see how it all worked and how uncomfortable it can be to hear directions coming through an earpiece.

Both worked as on-course reporters at Sea Island that fall.

And when Mickelson and Mackay parted ways after 25 years, Roy scooped up the longtime caddie for TV.

It's common for players to move into broadcasting. Far more unusual is for a caddie to be part of the mix. Mackay loves his new job. Mostly, he loves how it has helped elevate his profession after so many years of caddies being looked upon more unfavorably than they are now.

''I want to be a caddie that's doing TV,'' he said. ''That's what I hope to come across as. The guys think this is good for caddies. And if it's good for caddies, that makes me happy. Because I'm a caddie. I'll always be a caddie.''

Not next week at Torrey Pines, where Mickelson won three times. Not a week later in Phoenix, where Mackay lives. Both events belong to CBS.

And not the Masters.

He hasn't missed Augusta since 1994, when Mickelson broke his leg skiing that winter.

''That killed me,'' he said, ''but not nearly as much as it's going to kill me this year. I'll wake up on Thursday of the Masters and I'll be really grumpy. I'll probably avoid television at all costs until the 10th tee Sunday. And I'll watch. But it will be, within reason, the hardest day of my life.''

There are too many memories, dating to when he was in the gallery right of the 11th green in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman. He caddied for Mize for two years, and then Scott Simpson in 1992, and Mickelson the rest of the way. He was on the bag for Lefty's three green jackets.

Mackay still doesn't talk much about what led them to part ways, except to say that a player-caddie relationship runs its course.

''If you lose that positive dynamic, there's no point in continuing,'' he said. ''It can be gone in six months or a year or five years. In our case, it took 25 years.''

He says a dozen or so players called when they split up, and the phone call most intriguing was from Roy at NBC.

''I thought I'd caddie until I dropped,'' Mackay said.

He never imagined getting yardages and lining up putts for anyone except the golfer whose bag he was carrying. Now it's for an audience that measures in the millions. Mackay doesn't look at it as a second career. And he won't rule out caddying again.

''It will always be tempting,'' he said. ''I'll always consider myself a caddie. Right now, I'm very lucky and grateful to have the job I do.''

Except for that first week in April.

Getty Images

The Social: The end was nigh, then it wasn't

By Jason CrookJanuary 16, 2018, 7:00 pm

The star power at the Sony Open may have been overshadowed by a missile scare, but there were plenty of other social media stories that kept the golf world on its toes this week, including some insight on Tiger Woods from a round with President Obama and some failed trick shots.

All that and more in this week's edition of The Social.

By now you've undoubtedly heard about the false alarm in Hawaii on Saturday, where just about everyone, including most Sony Open participants, woke up to an emergency cell phone alert that there was a ballistic missile heading toward the islands.

Hawaiian emergency management officials eventually admitted the original message was mistakenly sent out, but before they did, people (understandably) freaked out.

As the situation unfolded, some Tour pros took to social media to express their confusion and to let the Twittersphere know how they planned on riding out this threat:

While I would've been in that bathtub under the mattress with John Peterson, his wife, baby and in-laws (wait, how big is this tub?), here's how Justin Thomas reacted to the threat of impending doom:

Yeah, you heard that right.

“I was like ‘there’s nothing I can do,'” Thomas said. ”I sat on my couch and opened up the sliding door and watched TV and listened to music. I was like, if it’s my time, it’s my time.”

Hmmm ... can we just go ahead and award him all the 2018 majors right now? Because if Thomas is staring down death in mid-January, you gotta like the kid's chances on the back nine Sunday at Augusta and beyond.

Before the Hawaiian Missile Crisis of 2018, things were going about as well as they could at Waialae Country Club, starting with the Wednesday pro-am.

Jordan Spieth might have been the third-biggest star in his own group, after getting paired with superstar singer/songwriter/actor Nick Jonas and model/actress Kelly Rohrbach.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more photogenic group out on the course, and the "Baywatch" star has a gorgeous swing as well, which makes sense, considering she was a former collegiate golfer at Georgetown.

As impressive as that group was, they were somehow outshined by an amateur in another group, former NFL coach June Jones.

Jones, who now coaches the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, played his round in bare feet and putted with his 5-iron, a remedy he came up with to battle the yips.

Former NFL and current CFL coach June Jones: A master of 5-iron putting?

A post shared by PGA TOUR (@pgatour) on

Considering he made back-to-back birdies at one point during the day, it's safe to say he's won that battle.

With Tiger Woods' return to the PGA Tour about a week away, that sound you hear is the hype train motoring full speed down the tracks.

First, his ex-girlfriend Lindsey Vonn told Sports Illustrated that she hopes this comeback works out for him.

“I loved him and we’re still friends. Sometimes, I wish he would have listened to me a little more, but he’s very stubborn and he likes to go his own way," the Olympic skiier said. "I hope this latest comeback sticks. I hope he goes back to winning tournaments.”

Vonn also mentioned she thinks Woods is very stubborn and that he didn't listen to her enough. That really shouldn't shock anyone who watched him win the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. Don't think there were a lot of people in his ear telling him that was a great idea at the time.

We also have this report from Golf Channel Insider Tim Rosaforte, stating that the 14-time major champ recently played a round with former president Barack Obama at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., where he received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon.

The Farmers Insurance Open is sure to be must-see TV, but until then, I'm here for all of the rampant speculation and guesses as to how things will go. The more takes the better. Make them extra spicy, please and thanks.

These poor New Orleans Saints fans. Guess the only thing you can do is throw your 65-inch TV off the balcony and get 'em next year.

Here's two more just for good measure.

Farts ... will they ever not be funny?

Perhaps someday, but that day was not early last week, when Tommy Fleetwood let one rip on his European teammates during EurAsia Cup team photos.

Fleetwood went 3-0-0 in the event, helping Europe to a victory over Asia, perhaps by distracting his opponents with the aid of his secret weapon.

Also, how about the diabolical question, "Did you get that?"

Yeah Tommy, we all got that.

Ahhh ... golf trick shot videos. You were fun while you lasted.

But now we’ve officially come to the point in their existence where an unsuccessful attempt is much more entertaining than a properly executed shot, and right on cue, a couple of pros delivered some epic fails.

We start with Sony Open runner-up James Hahn’s preparation for the event, where for some reason he thought he needed to practice a running, jumping, Happy Gilmore-esque shot from the lip of a bunker. It didn’t exactly work out.

Not to be outdone, Ladies European Tour pro Carly Booth attempted the juggling-drive-it-out-of-midair shot made famous by the Bryan Bros, and from the looks of things she might have caught it a little close to the hosel.

PSA to trick-shot artists everywhere: For the sake of the viewing public, if you feel a miss coming on, please make sure the camera is rolling.

Seriously, though, who cares? Definitely not these guys and gals, who took the time to comment, "who cares?" They definitely do not care.