Martin's improbable major win rooted in family

Mo Martin poses with the Women's British Open trophy at Turnberry, ahead of the 2015 event. (Getty Images)

RSS

TURNBERRY, Scotland – Perhaps Melissa “Mo” Martin’s grandfather captured one of those butterflies visiting the avocado orchards on his ranch in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada and whispered a wish to it.

Maybe that explains the enchantment in Martin’s winning the Ricoh Women’s British Open the way she did last year.

According to Indian legend in those Sierra foothills, if you capture a butterfly, “The Great Spirit” will grant any wish the butterfly carries to it in gratitude for the butterfly’s release.

It would explain the magic, because Martin’s victory at Royal Birkdale was as close to a fairy-tale ending as the star driven LPGA gets these days. With all the international talent at the top of the women’s game, you don’t see Cinderella stories breaking through anymore, not in major championships.

You don’t see butterflies cashing in wishes.

Martin’s grandfather, Lincoln Martin, didn’t get to see Mo win at Royal Birkdale last year, but she knows he would have relished being there. He adored her. An extraordinary character of many talents, he seemed to have lived multiple lives with boundless energy. He was a geophysicist, an engineer, an inventor and also a musician. Even after turning 100, he would still fly to watch Mo play, riding a scooter around the courses. He saw all three of her Symetra Tour victories, and he devoted a room at his California ranch house to her. He dedicated an entire wall in the room to her, posting clippings, photos and a map marking her golf journeys.

He also built a trophy case there to display all the hardware Mo won growing up.

Lincoln didn’t get to see the Women’s British Open trophy added to the case, though. He died of skin and prostate cancer four months before she won. He was 102. Mo carried a tangible reminder of his presence with her at Royal Birkdale. She won wearing a necklace with his initials attached.

“Actually, I don’t think she ever takes it off,” said her caddie, Kyle Morrison.

When Mo returned with family this past spring to spread her grandfather’s ashes on his ranch outside Porterville, Calif., a funny thing happened.

A migration of butterflies descended on the place.

“I had ordered a few butterflies to do a butterfly release,” said Mary Cadieux, Mo’s aunt and Lincoln’s daughter. “Instead, we found the grove filled with butterflies. They seemed to have gathered there for the event. Anytime the Martin clan gathers, it’s a special event, but that was truly memorable.”

Mo grew up in Pasadena, but Lincoln’s ranch became a special place for her, a second home.

After Lincoln’s death, there was uncertainty whether the family could afford to keep his 100-acre ranch. There were taxes to be paid, repairs to be made. Mo’s victory helped Aunt Mary solve some of the problems. The biggest payday of her life ($474,000) helped buy a new roof for her grandfather’s home. It helped keep the ranch in the family, not just for Mo, but for all the Martins.


Lincoln Martin's ranch


“It’s a very special place,” Mo said. “It’s hard to describe without your being able to see it. I think it’s just a very important place to all of us, a sanctuary for all our family. It’s tucked away in the mountains, a very beautiful, very peaceful place.”

Mo carries the charms of that special place with her, but family knows the real magic to her winning at Royal Birkdale was what she made herself. Winning there made sense to them. In many ways, she was groomed for the ordeal that Sunday offered.

Yes, Martin was a long shot to emerge from a star-studded leaderboard with major championship winners Inbee Park, Suzann Pettersen and Shanshan Feng battling down the stretch for the victory. Martin, after all, had never won an LPGA title, hadn’t even led after any round in her 63 previous starts in LPGA events. She was a 31-year-old journeywoman who toiled for six years on the Symetra Tour before finally getting her chance to play the LPGA.  She was No. 99 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in vital ways her game was made for the conditions at Royal Birkdale.

At 5 feet 2, Martin may be one of the LPGA’s shortest hitters, but she is most dependably its straightest. She’s leading the tour this year in driving accuracy hitting an almost ridiculous 89.8 percent of the fairways she sees. She also led the tour in driving accuracy last year and the year before that.

“When she does miss, it’s usually by a foot,” Morrison said.

With the winds blowing heavy in last year’s final round, Martin put all her skills to bear navigating Royal Birkdale’s punishing routes through thick heather and gorse. It wasn’t just her ability to hit the ball straight that favored her in those conditions. It was her ability to shape shots in the wind. It was also her attitude, the way she relished the challenge.

“I love playing in the wind,” Martin said. “I can control my ball flight. I can hit it low. I can hit it higher. I can work it both left-to-right and right-to-left. So, I’m comfortable playing those shots.”

Morrison watched Martin consistently hit the shots Royal Birkdale demanded.

“Because Mo hits it shorter, people don’t think of her as a ball-striker, but she’s definitely one of the best ball-strikers on tour,” Morrison said. “The style of game over here is so foreign to what we are used to growing up in the United States, but it fits her to a tee. She likes courses where you really have to think your way around, where it’s ‘Hey, do we have to land this 8-iron 10 yards short of the green or 30 yards short of the green?’ It’s never boring golf, and she likes that.”

Martin started the final round three shots behind Park with Pettersen, Feng and Stacy Lewis all ahead of her on the leaderboard. Using her ability to keep her trajectory low, to hold shots against the wind, Martin fought her way to the clubhouse lead a good hour before Park finished. Martin did so closing out her round with one of the greatest shots in major championship history.

In the fairway at the 18th, with the wind roaring off her left, Martin stood over a 3-wood from 237 yards and ran a bullet up on to the green, where it bounded obediently before slowing and rattling off the flagstick, nearly falling in for an albatross. She holed a 6-foot eagle, her first eagle of the year, to close out a 72.


Mo Martin's approach on the 72nd hole at Royal Birkdale. (Getty)


Martin finished at 1-under 287, the only player to break par for the week. Her final-round 72 equaled the round of the day. Park closed with a 77, Pettersen and Feng with 75s and Lewis with a 78.

There was no wishing in Martin’s last 3-wood through crosswinds and a narrow, bunkered opening to the 18th green.

Martin pulled off exactly what she intended in the shot of a lifetime.

“It was a pretty complicated shot,” Martin said. “The wind was left to right, and there was a little bit of left to right in my lie. I was playing a draw to fight those factors. I was playing a draw against the wind. In my mind, I can still see it crystal clear.”

Martin’s father, Allen, first put a golf club in Mo’s hands when she was 3, maybe 4. If there’s an embedded secret to how straight she hits the ball, it’s in the discipline he created in her swing right from the start. He taught her out of Ben Hogan’s book “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.” She remembers going to kindergarten unable to wipe away the lines her father drew onto the palms of her hands. He made X’s with permanent markers to help her align her grip.

“When I first started, he wouldn’t let me take a full swing until my backswing was perfect,” Martin said.

Her father’s influence is also a large factor in her ability to hit both fades and draws.

“My dad didn’t know how big my fingers were going to get, so he had me go to the 10-finger grip,” Martin said. “Now, my hands are big for my size. I wear a medium glove, but I’ve stayed with the 10-finger grip. I think it actually helps me work the ball.”

Mo’s father also helped her develop a fighter’s instinct, a survivalist mentality, that worked for her at Royal Birkdale. She didn’t grow up playing at a country clubs. She learned to play hitting into a net in her front yard. Her father was an attorney, but he was a struggling attorney with financial problems.

Allen saw a mighty spirit in his diminutive daughter, the youngest of his three children, and he began calling her “Mighty Mo” based on his admiration for the USS Missouri battleship.

“The Mighty Missouri was a workhorse that always took care of business, that endured and survived,” says Martin's mother Linda, who still likes to call Mo by her given name, Melissa. “That’s what Melissa’s father saw in her. She always took care of business.

“Melissa had this tremendous work ethic growing up, and she was always so goal oriented. When her brother, Don, came home with a golf trophy, that was it. Melissa wanted one of those shiny trophies, too. She always knew what she had to do to reach her goals. She was a good student, and she would come home with A’s, but she loved golf. She would be at the door after school saying, ‘Come on, Mommy, let’s go. I want to get to the golf course.’”

Mo’s father was her long-time coach, but he died unexpectedly of a heart attack when he was 60, when Mo was at UCLA, where she walked on before earning a full scholarship after her freshman year. Mo’s father was the only coach she ever knew. His death was so traumatic, she decided to take a redshirt year at UCLA and study abroad. She studied in in Siena, Italy.

“It was the perfect thing for her to do, to re-evaluate her life and her goals,” Linda said. “She returned to UCLA even more focused and determined ... and speaking fluent Italian.”

That’s about the time Mo’s grandfather came more fully into Mo’s life. Mo’s father and grandfather did not see eye to eye on certain things and became estranged, and that meant Mo didn’t get to see much of Lincoln growing up. When she first visited his ranch while at UCLA, she was overwhelmed. Mo saw the wall full of newspaper clippings documenting her career, and she got emotional.

“I cried when I saw it,” Mo said.

Linda saw Lincoln step into an empty spot in Mo’s life.

“He filled in that fatherly, grandfatherly role,” Linda said. “He was a remarkable person, just an amazing man, so positive. He was a great influence for Melissa.”

Mo began driving over from UCLA to see Lincoln regularly. She called him every day.

“I mean every day,” Mo said. “It’s changed my life significantly, just being around him and knowing him. He was the most peaceful person I’ve ever met. In talking to his children, none of us have ever heard him say a bad word about anybody. So, to be that grateful, and that simple, and that smart, and that kind, I can’t think of a better influence in my life.”

Kyle was always impressed at how modern Lincoln remained. He had his own iPad before it was common.

“He embraced new technology,” Kyle said. “You hear how older people can be bitter about technology, but he would text Mo and FaceTime with Mo.”

Mary, Mo’s aunt, saw how Mo and Lincoln filled holes in each other’s lives.

“My father was a shy, reticent man,” Mary said. “His relationship with Mo made him so comfortable expressing his love for her and his delight in her accomplishments.”

Mo makes her home today in Naples, Fla., but Lincoln’s ranch remains a sanctuary for her, one she’s grateful her entire family can still enjoy.

“It makes us all happy that we can continue to go to the ranch and soak up the memories, the peacefulness and beauty and bounty that are there,” Mary said. “And recall Lincoln’s respect and love for that land ... My father would have been so pleased.”

Mo’s Women’s British Open trophy is spending time with Mo’s mother but it will eventually find its place in the trophy case Lincoln built on his ranch. It’ll be home there amid all the special memories ... and the butterflies that occasionally visit.