Golf, like rock & roll, has long had healing power. It offers, to those who truly seek it, redemption. Sometimes this redemption is found on the next shot, the next hole or the next round. Sometimes it takes even longer.
Just ask Pablo Martin.
Shortly before Christmas, Martin — ranked No. 488 in the world — won the inaugural event of the 2010 European Tour season, the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa. To say this came out of nowhere is to understate what happened that week.
Described by veteran European Tour writer Lewine Mair as “dripping with talent,” the 23-year-old Spaniard burst upon the golf scene in 2001 when, at age 15 years and 120 days, he became the youngest winner of the British Boys Championship. Martin would go on to enroll at college golf powerhouse Oklahoma State University and promptly won his first college tournament.
Martin was twice college golf’s player of the year, recording five victories in his three-year career at OSU. But he also made noise back home on the pro circuit, becoming the first amateur to win a European Tour event, at the 2007 Estoril Open de Portugal in the spring of his third year at Oklahoma State. An exemption through 2009 on the European Tour was part of the reward.
Martin turned pro later in the summer of 2007. He hired IMG to represent him and signed an equipment deal with Nike. Then he was off to Oakmont Country Club for the U.S. Open, where he made the cut and finished 30th. Expectations were high for the next big thing in golf.
And then Pablo Martin fell into the abyss.
He finished 178th on the European Tour’s Order of Merit in his abbreviated 2007 pro season. The next year saw further deterioration. His scoring average ballooned to 74.4 and he finished 182nd on the Order of Merit with less than 70,000 Euros. It got worse in 2009. Martin missed 20 of 22 cuts, including the first seven events on the new European Tour Race to Dubai schedule. He barely kept his card, winning just enough money to remain exempt and avoid the arduous qualifying process.
The decline was a mystery to most observers. Martin is technically solid, plenty long and owner of an artful short game. Maybe he was cursed by the exemption, by going straight to the big Tour, not having to learn to travel, eat well, practice and work out, all the things you have to figure out. Maybe it was because the game just came too easy to him until he hit the big time, and he didn’t have the necessary work ethic and practice/training habits developed. Perhaps it was the weight of the expectations, the responsibility he shouldered to become the “next Seve” that caused him to try to press and ultimately to lose his confidence. And maybe it was a trying family illness, one left unspoken but real nonetheless.
Seeking escape, he headed in December to South Africa for the Alfred Dunhill Championship with his sister, who wanted to “see some animals.” What she saw instead was nothing less than golf redemption.
Leading by two strokes after 54 holes, Martin teed off in the final round alongside past champion and local favorite Charles Schwartzel. A tense duel unfolded. When Schwartzel birdied the 16th, Martin’s margin was cut to one stroke. Both parred the 17th, and both laid up on No. 18 — Schwartzel out of necessity; Martin out of safety concerns. Schwartzel hit his third shot tight, forcing Martin to grind over a treacherous 80-yard shot over water to a tough pin. His shot flirted with danger but checked up just in time to avoid rolling into the hazard. Two putts later, victory — and redemption — was his.
At a time when golf has become sport’s whipping boy, at a moment when many forecast some sort of injury to the game as a result of the misadventures of the world’s No. 1 player, we were reminded by this gritty youngster of the redemptive possibilities of this amazing game. Persistence and inner fortitude matter.
Golf works in mysterious ways. It challenges, frustrates, thrills and disappoints all who play it. But it also has the power to heal. Martin sought absolution from consistently bad golf; Tiger Woods’ issues are far more profound. Here’s hoping Woods finds that healing and returns soon to the game.