Fort Worth golfer Martin Piller waited anxiously beside the 18th green at St. Leon-Rot Golf Club in Germany, staring at a makeable putt with a championship hanging in the balance.
But it wasn’t Martin who was poised to make golf history on that Sunday afternoon in September. It was his wife, LPGA Tour player Gerina Piller, playing for Team USA against Europe in the prestigious Solheim Cup competition.
“It was one of the very few times that I actually got nervous watching her,” Martin said. “I never get nervous watching her, but as she came down on that last hole, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty tense.’”
Both Martin and Gerina knew what was at stake. If she missed the 9-foot putt, Europe would retain the cup it had won two years earlier. If she made it, she would win her match against German golfer Caroline Masson and all but clinch an American victory. Martin held his breath as his wife leaned over the ball, her twisted ponytail dangling down her shoulder, and calmly rolled it toward the hole.
As the ball fell into the cup, Martin screamed and the U.S. partisans in the predominantly European crowd erupted in cheers. Gerina’s teammates rushed toward her, giving her hugs and high-fives. Behind them was Martin, waiting patiently for his moment.
Finally, the crowd cleared. The couple wrapped their arms around each other, tears streaming down their faces.
“I’m so proud of you,” he whispered.
It was the ultimate highlight among many highlight moments the Pillers have shared in 2015. Earlier in the year, Martin won two events on professional golf’s Web.com Tour, a developmental tour one rung below the PGA Tour and its top-level competition featuring the world’s best players. Piller’s win in the Boise Open last July vaulted him to No. 4 on the Web.com tour’s money list and cemented his ranking among the top 25 who qualify for the PGA Tour.
It’s been nearly four years since Martin competed in a PGA event, but he’ll rejoin the tour this week for the first tournament of the 2015-16 season, the Frys.com Open in Napa, California. It’s an opportunity the 29-year-old golfer has fought for, and one that sometimes seemed unattainable.
Martin grew up in Duncanville, the son of a television producer mother, Sara Ivey, and a newspaper reporter father, Dan Piller, who wrote for the Dallas Times Herald and later for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Golf wasn’t Martin’s favorite sport, but he would tag along with his father and older brother Nathan at the golf course, Dan Piller said.
Martin thought golf was “slow and uncool,” Dan said, and showed more interest in skateboarding and other sports.
But Nathan played on the Duncanville High School golf team, Dan said, and when Martin noticed that golf practice allowed his brother to get off school early, Martin suddenly got interested.
Before long, Martin started developing a passion for the game. He made the Duncanville team as a freshman and became the baby in the group, surrounded by four seniors.
Even so, his former head coach Bryan Winnett said Martin had something special.
“He was pretty accurate, had a fantastic short game, could chip and putt like crazy,” Winnett said. “He had the desire and passion for it. I could definitely see him playing at the next level.”
Piller emerged as a breakout talent, helping his team to a third-place finish at the state tournament that year.
“Coaches always want to get a once-in-a-lifetime player and that’s really what Martin was for me,” Winnett said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Martin.”
Martin’s mother said she knew golf would be in her son’s future as well. He would spend full days practicing with his brother at Thorntree Country Club, sometimes eating three meals at the club.
“That was my day-care center in the summers,” Ivey said.
Piller’s passion for golf would carry into college. Texas A&M pursued him the hardest, sending him letters every week, followed by phone calls from the assistant coach, Ivey said.
A&M’s persistence eventually won Piller over. He became an Aggie and joined the golf team, playing on scholarship. Golf was his main focus; on the academic side, he chose agricultural development as his major because it was “the easiest one,” he said.
Piller graduated from A&M in the summer of 2008. Shortly before graduation, he played his first post-college tournament, the Texas State Open, which was open to both amateurs and professionals. He won the event and used his $25,000 prize money to help pay for Qualifying School to get on the PGA Tour.
To get to the PGA Tour from Q-School, players had to finish among the top 25 while the next 50 golfers would fall to the Web.com Tour, which until 2012 was called the Nationwide Tour. Piller finished 40th.
During his first stint on the Nationwide Tour, Piller had a decent run, finishing 35th and earning $157,153 for the 2009 season.
Something else would happen that same year – something outside the tour that would change Piller’s life.
In November 2009 one of Piller’s friends, a car-racing enthusiast who knew people who worked in a NASCAR pit crew, wanted to gather a group of friends to play golf with the pit crew then watch a race at Texas Motor Speedway.
One of the invitees was Gerina Mendoza, a New Mexico native who had moved to Dallas after attending the University of Texas at El Paso on a golf scholarship.
She was playing on the LPGA’s developmental tour (then known as the Futures Tour but changed to the Symetra Tour in 2011) and was going through a crossroads of sorts – she wanted to return to her Christian faith and had joined a Bible study group with other golfers on her tour.
It was the topic of faith that provided common ground when Martin and Gerina met for the first time at Cowboys Golf Club in Grapevine and discovered that they had been attending the same church and practicing at the same golf course without having ever run into each other.
They seemed to hit it off at first, but when they returned to Cowboys for the next day’s round of golf, things didn’t go quite as well.
After the mutual friend who had invited them wandered off to take pictures, they decided to take the same golf cart and play the course on their own. They arrived at the first hole and began to play. After his second shot on the first hole, Martin made a comment.
“I hate hitting it dead perfect every time,” he said.
Gerina was annoyed. She shook her head at his seemingly cocky attitude.
On a later hole, Gerina’s ball landed in the sand along the fairway. Bunker play wasn’t a strong point of her game at the time, so she asked Martin for advice.
“Well, just hit it,” he snapped.
That was it. She officially couldn’t stand him. But while Gerina was turned off, Martin was intrigued.
The next day, he asked for her phone number and invited her to play golf with him again.
“Well if you’re going to ask me out, you might as well do it now so I can say ‘no,’ and we can be friends,” she said.
She then gave him her number, thinking he wouldn’t even bother to call.
But he called. She decided to give him one more chance.
He was a little less annoying this time, Gerina said.
Eventually, their time together consisted of more than just playing golf. He asked if she’d be interested in doing a Bible study with him. She agreed, and they began listening to a podcast together, taking notes then discussing what they learned.
“It was just great that we could get to know each other more, get to know each other’s heart and what we believed,” Gerina said.
As their relationship blossomed, their golf careers seemed to coincide. The following year, 2010, both played well enough to graduate from their respective developmental tours. Martin qualified to play the 2011 season on the PGA Tour, while Gerina moved up to the LPGA Tour.
The excitement kept building. In August, after they both earned their tour cards, Martin proposed. Gerina said “yes.”
Knowing that the 2011 PGA Tour and the LPGA Tour were approaching, the two decided they needed to get married as soon as possible to avoid planning a wedding amidst a hectic golf schedule.
So, on Jan. 8, 2011, five months after getting engaged, Martin and Gerina were married. The next morning, they took a plane to Hawaii – for the Sony Open, where Martin would play his first event on the PGA Tour.
Sadly, the tournament wasn’t much of a honeymoon for Martin. He only made it through the second of four rounds, ultimately missing the cut.
The following week, he entered the Bob Hope Classic in California – and missed the cut again.
The rest of the tour became a familiar story. Out of 23 events, Piller would make just seven cuts. He would go up to four straight weeks without making a cut and without earning a single dollar for his play. He struggled to break into the top 25 in tournaments, reaching that level only once when he finished 23rd at the Texas Open.
At the end of the season, he missed a coveted spot among the top 125 money winners who would go on to play the PGA Tour again. Piller finished at No. 193, and like a major league baseball player demoted to Triple-A, he fell back to the Web.com Tour.
The next two years didn’t get any better. Even on the Web.com Tour, he continued to struggle. In the 38 events he played in 2012 and 2013, he made the cut just 14 times, finishing both seasons ranked below No. 100.
On the flip side, his wife’s career was on the upswing.
During her first year on the LPGA Tour, Gerina Piller played well enough to keep her tour card for the following season. She found herself finishing tournaments not only among the top 25, but also in the top 10. She had 10 top-10 finishes over the 2012 and 2013 seasons. In those two years, Gerina won more than $800,000 while Martin earned a little more than $56,000.
“She’s the breadwinner in our family,” Piller said, noting that Gerina has made more money than he has every year since they got married,
But he could care less for the money, Martin said. His motivation has always been the desire to be a contender – to get back on the PGA Tour and show that he has the talent to compete. But with his lack of success in his first stint on the PGA tour and his subsequent struggles on the Web.com Tour, he began to question his abilities. He wondered whether he loved golf enough to keep chasing the dream.
Somehow, when his hopes seemed to be fading, his wife helped him keep going.
“She’s always been super encouraging of me,” he said. “Even when my career has dipped down, she’s always been there for me.”
Gerina’s approach to encouraging her husband was low key. She figured that the best way to help was to keep her distance.
“I don’t want to overpower him and be like, ‘Well, you need to do this or you need to do that,’” she said. “I just wanted to be available for him and let him know, ‘Hey if you want to talk about it, I’m here.’”
“We try to keep golf very separate from our relationship and our marriage,” she said. “It was just one of those things where silence was more helpful than anything.”
Perhaps it wasn’t her words, but her actions that inspired Martin the most. Watching his wife, he started realizing what his problem was – his work ethic.
“Seeing her being one of the best players in the world, working as hard as she does on her game, gave me a picture of what it takes to work on your game,” he said.
During practice, Piller said, he’d often be “lollygagging” on the golf course. He told himself that if he wanted to get better, he needed to focus.
“I didn’t really change a whole lot from a physical standpoint,” he said. “I had a good game. My game was good before, because I was able to get to the PGA Tour. So it’s like, your game is good, let’s see how we can maximize that game.”
As he began to practice more diligently, he soon found his technique improving.
He eventually found his go-to shot: a fade, which sends the ball traveling in a left to right motion. With that shot he can almost predict where he’s sending the ball, something he wasn’t able to do in the past.
During the 2014 season on the Web.com Tour, he began to see results. He made eight cuts in 13 events, along with a first-place finish at the News Sentinel Open in Knoxville, Tenn. At the end of the season, he came up just four spots short of the top 25 who would graduate to the PGA Tour.
Then came 2015. Another year, another attempt to make the PGA Tour. This would be Piller’s fourth go-round. Shortly before leaving for his first set of tournaments, in South America, he suddenly found himself facing a moment of doubt.
Piller said he remembers sitting up on his bed, thinking about traveling to South America – again. Playing on the Web.com Tour – again. Failing to reach the PGA Tour – again.
Questions raced through his head.
“Man, do I really want to go through with this? Am I good enough? Is my game good enough? Is this truly what I want? Certainly those thoughts come into your mind,” he said.
And it wasn’t just about the competition he was concerned about. The travel schedule was intense for both him and his wife. Sometimes one would be stateside while the other was halfway across the world. This year, his schedule began in Panama; hers began in Florida.
But something changed when he thought about Gerina and all the years she had supported him through his victories and failures. Playing golf was his one opportunity to provide for them both. And, of course, there was still that chance of making the PGA Tour.
So he made a decision.
“It’s like, you know what? I need to go give it everything I have, not just for me, but for my family,” he said.
He made up his mind to play another season on the Web.com Tour, and in July that decision would pay off at the Boise Open.
Piller carded a six-stroke victory with a four-round score of 256 – 28 under par – earning $144,000 and the No. 4 ranking on the money list, enough to guarantee a second chance on the most prestigious tour in the world.
“There was always that question of, ‘Man, will I ever get back to the PGA Tour?’” Piller said. “Boise was special because that question was answered.”
Gerina was in Pennsylvania that week competing in the U.S. Women’s Open. She watched the end of her husband’s tournament on her phone while at the airport.
When she saw him make the final shot, she said the feeling was “surreal.”
“He has worked so hard after being so down and out,” she said. “Just to see the success and see his hard work pay off, I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
And now Martin heads back to the PGA Tour to compete with the likes of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy.
“If you’re a golfer, that’s what you look for, is to play on the PGA Tour,” Martin said. “It’s the highest level. It’s the best players, the best courses, the best events. It’s the best of everything.”
Before leaving for California, he had a week or so off to spend at the Pillers’ home near Eagle Mountain Lake. He didn’t spend his time slaving away on the golf course but instead took time to relax, keeping practice time to a minimum.
“I travel so much that when I have a chance to be home, man, I am home,” he said.
Sadly for Martin, his wife wasn’t home with him. She was nearly 10,000 miles away, playing in an LPGA event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Traveling has become part of the couple’s lifestyle and they often spend weeks apart from one another, although sometimes one will opt out of a tournament to watch the other play. Instead of chasing the $180,000 winner’s share of the Web.com Tour’s $1 million Small Business Connection Championship in North Carolina last month, Martin invested in a plane ticket so he could root for Gerina and her Solheim Cup teammates in Germany.
Most of the time, however, the Pillers are at separate points on the map, relying on phone calls and FaceTime to communicate.
Though the couple has been able to handle traveling for the past four years, Martin said saying goodbye hasn’t gotten easier.
They still cry when they say goodbye to one another, he said.
But in some ways, perhaps, the separations have helped the couple grow closer. Being apart helps them cherish the time they’re able to spend together, Gerina said.
Martin and Gerina know that things will change once they start a family. They’ve talked about the challenges of juggling golf and parenthood, Martin said, but they have “zero idea” what they’ll do. He said they’ll “figure it out” when it happens.
For now, the couple is staying focused on what’s happening right now: the rest of the golf season, and Martin’s return to the big leagues.
Anything can happen, but win or lose Martin takes comfort in knowing he has the talent to compete at the next level. And in knowing that Gerina will always be by his side, even if they are far apart.
“She encourages me tenfold throughout those tough times, which makes these times when you do come out on top a lot sweeter,” he said.
And it goes both ways.
“I learn so much from him as a golfer, as a person,” Gerina said. “He may not always express that to me, but it’s pretty cool that he feels that way. It just makes me fall in love with him more.”
Touring on a budget
Winning professional golf tournaments means coming home with paychecks flashing some fairly big numbers.
Martin Piller’s winnings at the Boise Open and Digital Ally Open this year totaled $252,000. Add that to the money he’s earned at other tournaments, and he’s racked up more than $300,000 for the season.
At the same time, neither the developmental Web.com Tour nor the PGA Tour pays for its golfers’ expenses, which means Piller has to shoulder much of the travel, lodging and food costs. On top of that, Piller has to pay his caddy and, like everyone else, his taxes.
In the end, he would have paid out about 20 percent of his earnings. So, the $108,000 he won at the Digital Ally Open, for example, translates to approximately $86,000 to keep for himself. Nice work if you can get it, but not quite as lucrative as those giant-size checks they hand out at the trophy presentations would suggest.
And missing a cut or finishing far down the leaderboard is less fun, Piller said. Rank low and you earn very little. Miss a cut and you earn nothing.
Piller won about $56,000 while struggling on the Web.com Tour in 2012 and 2013. Piller’s wife Gerina was making good money on the women’s tour, Martin said, so the Pillers had no trouble paying their bills but his prolonged slump offers evidence of how tough life can be as a touring golf pro.
“You’re kind of running a small business, basically,” he said. “It’s essentially what you are as a pro golfer. That business is successful when you play well. If you don’t play well, that business is not successful. There’s a lot of moving parts.”
That’s why being frugal is important while on tour, he said.
Travel expenses aren’t too high in some cases, especially when the next tournament is within the United States, Piller said.
Take the Web.com Tour’s Digital Ally Open in Overland Park, Kansas, and the Price Cutter Charity Championship in Springfield, Missouri, for example. The cities are about three hours apart, so Piller could just drive from one tournament to the next.
At the beginning of the season, however, Piller traveled to four different countries in Central and South America. The tour also took him to Mexico and Canada.
When there’s international travel, the price goes up, he said.
To cut the cost, he chooses not to fly first class and tries to stay at hotels like Hampton Inn that aren’t too “fancy,” he said.
A cheaper option than staying at a hotel is staying at someone’s house, he said.
“I try to stay at private housing as much as I can, just people that I know, just to save money,” Piller said. “If a hotel runs you $500 or $600 for a week, you can save $500 a week.”
He also said he tries not to spend too much money on food, opting for restaurants like Chipotle instead of something more upscale.
Living in Texas also helps with his finances. A lot of golfers choose to live in Texas because there is no state income tax, Piller said.
But being financially responsible as a professional athlete isn’t easy for everyone. In 2012, ESPN released the documentary, Broke, which told the stories of athletes who struggled to handle their large paychecks. The film cited a 2009 Sports Illustrated article, which stated that 78 percent of former NFL players go bankrupt after being retired for two years, and 60 percent of NBA players go bankrupt within five years of retirement.
In the golf world, PGA Tour golfer John Daly lost about $90 million due to a gambling addiction, according to Forbes.
“You’re kind of on edge about it because you hear all these stories of guys who’ve filed for bankruptcy and you think, ‘Man, that could happen to me if I’m not careful,’” Piller said.
Still, Piller said, most of the golfers he knows handle their money responsibly.
“I just think that’s a culture in golf just because we don’t have guaranteed contracts,” he said. “I can’t sign a contract and have money come in for two or three years. I only have money that’s coming in week to week.”
Piller said he admits he sometimes wishes he could have a job with a steady income, but he loves golf too much to do that.
“It’s a lot of expenses,” he said. “It’s certainly an interesting world that we’ve decided to learn.”