Pillers on a mission
While Martin Piller is fighting for a spot in the FedExCup Playoffs, his wife Gerina will be fighting for gold.
August 16, 2016
By Bill Fields, Special PGATOUR.COM
Gerina Piller tried on some clothes last month during the UL International Crown, but it wasn’t at a boutique or mall. The attire wasn’t anything you can find on a store shelf.
“They came out to Chicago to do our fitting for the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies,” Piller said. “The coolest thing was putting on the medal-ceremony outfit, trying it on for size and hoping you get to put it on again. That was a cool feeling.”
Piller -- who will represent the United States in this week’s women’s golf competition at Rio de Janeiro with fellow Americans Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson -- was describing the goosebumps moment while sitting in a small grandstand behind the practice range at the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., earlier this month.
Martin Piller, Gerina’s husband of five years, was warming up for the first round at TPC River Highlands. He had a 2:15 p.m. starting time, the last off No. 1. Gerina, in sandals, shorts, sunglasses and a Texas Rangers cap, would spend the afternoon in Martin’s small gallery that was a bit bigger than it would have been because a club pro from nearby Old Lyme, Conn., Adam Rainaud, was in the grouping.
This is a nervous time of the year for Martin, a 30-year-old Texan who is in his second season on the PGA TOUR after having also played in 2011. While Gerina is going for gold in Brazil with golf back in the Olympics for the first time in more than a century, Martin will be at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., seeking to make a dramatic jump in the FedExCup standings in order to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs.
He will need a very good week to climb into the top 125. In a season highlighted by top-10 finishes in the Valero Texas Open (tie for fourth) and DEAN & DELUCA Invitational (tie for sixth), Martin is 160th in FedExCup points heading into this week’s Wyndham Championship, the final event remaining in the PGA TOUR Season.
Since his strong performance in the DEAN & DELUCA at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, not far from the Pillers’ home, he has struggled to find good form. Martin missed 13 cuts in 21 tournaments, breaking 70 only 11 times in 55 rounds. Normally buoyed by his putting -- he is eighth in Strokes Gained: Putting in 2015-16 -- being handy on the greens hasn’t been enough to offset being 189th in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green this season.
“I don’t feel like I’m playing bad,” Martin said. “I feel like I’m doing a lot of good things. The ball hasn’t gotten in the hole quick enough, but that can change real fast. At the end of the day I’m on the PGA TOUR, so it’ s not hard to keep your spirits up. In 2012, 2013 and 2014 I had limited status on the Web.com Tour, so there are worse places to be for sure.”
That Martin, a five-time winner on the Web.com Tour, would have an upbeat approach amid disappointing results is no surprise to Hall of Famer Juli Inkster, a good friend of the couple who often travels the LPGA Tour with Gerina.
“Martin is such a confident guy,” Inkster said. “You look at his record, and he doesn’t play very well and then he wins. It wouldn’t take much for him to turn his game around. Me, I’d be thinking, ‘Oh my god, the world’s coming to an end.’ I just love his attitude. It could take just one good round to get him going. He’s got a great head on his shoulders.”
Said Gerina: “As cliché as it sounds, I think it’s just more about being patient. He’s just got to go out there and do his thing -- he has to believe that he’s good enough. He’s proven it. He’s had two top-10s, and during his rookie season he didn’t come close to a top-10. He’s a great golfer, but he’s playing against the best players in the world. I think it’s just hard. It was hard for me when I was an LPGA rookie, trying to play well, get some confidence and establish yourself. From the No. 1 player in the world to, say, No. 50, there is not much margin of difference.”
Even though she is still searching for her first LPGA victory, Gerina, 31, is firmly established as one of the best players in women’s golf. She qualified for the Olympics by moving up to 15th in the Rolex Rankings by the July 11 cutoff date following the U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle in San Martin, Calif., where she tied for eighth to rise one crucial spot in the ranking.
“It was kind of a blessing in disguise that it was a U.S. Open that we finished on because it kept my mind off trying to qualify for the Olympics,” Gerina said. “Opens are so demanding, physically and mentally, that it’s a really tough week. The beginning of the year I didn’t even think I had a shot at qualifying. My whole philosophy is just about focusing on the process and not the results and being a more consistent golfer. If I can be a more consistent golfer, then the results are going to take care of themselves. I’ve done really well with that this year.”
Gerina was No. 29 in the world at the end of 2015 but had five top-six finishes in a stretch from late March to late May. In her sixth LPGA season, she is 13th on the money list, in position for her strongest placing yet. (Piller was 18th in earnings last year.) A member of the last two United States Solheim Cup teams -- including the 2015 side that staged a record final-day comeback to prevail, thanks in large measure to an essential 10-foot par putt she made to keep the rally alive -- Piller has done everything but win an LPGA title.
“She’s pretty fun to watch,” Martin said. “She’s so talented. There are a lot of things in her game that I like. Her ball-striking is really elite. When she gets to grooving it with her driver, it’s long and straight. Her putting has improved by leaps and bounds. It seems like she gets better every year. I’m wishing it’ll rub off on me.”
Piller is a bit of throwback in that she didn’t take up golf until she was 15 years old, the same age World No. 1 Lydia Ko won her first LPGA event. Inkster, who also began playing at 15 in an era when it wasn’t the norm for juniors to immerse themselves in golf from the time they were in elementary school, believes Piller is still catching up.
“Everybody’s always learning in golf, but I think her curve is greater than most people her age because she started so late,” Inkster said. “A lot of people are peaking at her age. I think her best golf is yet to come. Her swing is good, and she can really bomb the ball. She can improve her course management and her short game. It’s good, but it’s hot and cold. Believe me, she can be a top-10 player out there easy.”
Another Hall of Famer in Gerina’s corner is Nancy Lopez, the 48-time LPGA winner. Like Gerina Piller, whose maiden name is Mendoza, she has Hispanic heritage. She also grew up the same hometown, Roswell, N.M.
“Gerina is a fantastic person, first of all, but what a great golfer,” Lopez said. “It’s neat being able to follow her knowing we came from the same place. I’ve talked with her a bit this year, and I know she wants to win really badly. Sometimes that kind of paralyzes us a little bit when we want to do that.”
Gerina and Martin each believe that golf isn’t the kind of sport where you can force things to happen.
“Golf is one of those games, if you push, it’s going to push right back,” said Gerina, who isn’t unfamiliar with holding a trophy, having won four college events her senior year at the University of Texas-El Paso as well as a New Mexico state prep title. You can’t go out there on Thursday morning and tee it up and try to win a tournament. They don’t crown a champion until Sunday.”
Martin, who was in his wife’s gallery at the U.S. Women’s Open after The Greenbrier Classic was canceled because of devastating floods in West Virginia, draws upon another sport when explaining how he and Gerina approach the game.
“You can’t win by thinking about winning,” he said. “Hitting a golf ball is kind of like shooting a free throw. You don’t make a free throw by trying harder. You get yourself ready, and you have to repeat and execute. If you’re finishing in the top 10, you’ve generally played well enough to win. It could be a matter of only three or four shots.”
A top-10 this week at Sedgefield Country Club could do wonders for Martin. Gerina will be 4,700 miles away in South America. Once she qualified for the Games, there wasn’t much doubt that Gerina would make the trip despite health and safety concerns that figured into the decisions of some top male golfers not to participate. The LPGA’s best, who play a worldwide schedule, have embraced the Olympics.
“The motto on our tour is to act like a founder,” Gerina said. “If it wasn’t for the LPGA founders, we wouldn’t have a place to play. This is one way to give back to the game. Golf has provided me with so many opportunities—my college education, being on tour, the people I get to meet. It’s a way to be an ambassador for your sport. We travel around the world throughout the season. We go to places that have security and health issues, but the thing that makes it okay is that you’re knowledgeable about what is going on. This is just like any other place we could be going.”
But not exactly.
“She’s a huge red, white and blue person,” Inkster said. “Solheim Cup, she’s just all in. She’s so patriotic and just really believes in the USA. Representing the United States was too big to pass up.”
Gerina’s earliest Olympic memory from watching the Games on television is of American gymnast Kerri Strug vaulting with an injured ankle and then being carried to the award podium at the 1996 Summer Olympics. “It was almost like the “Rudy” movie,” Gerina said, “and I could watch that all day, every day. It never gets old.”
Other experiences also shaped her attitude about her country. The high school that she and Lopez attended, Goddard High School, was built in the 1960s during the Cold War. Because nearby Walker Air Force Base was believed to be a potential target for an attack by the Soviet Union, the classrooms were built below ground so that they could be utilized as a bomb shelter.
“I’m just grateful to be an American. I’m very fortunate,” Gerina said. “My dad served in the Air Force when I was a kid. He would leave VHS tapes, just him talking to us, before he left for duty. I thought that was really cool. To be in the military -- I can’t imagine fighting for your country. I play golf for the USA and feel that’s the greatest honor. I never get tired of hearing our national anthem. At the International Crown, when they announced me on the tee as an Olympian, it just sent chills up my spine.”
There won’t be that kind of fanfare for Martin in North Carolina, just a man going to work trying to do a good job. Playing in tournaments the same week is nothing new for the Pillers. They do it often.
“We’ve played simultaneously for the six years we’ve known each other and this won’t be much different,” Martin said. “It’s not a big deal. When I get out on the course, I can block it out. I’ve got to do my job and play my game. Thinking about her doesn’t help me. Whatever she shoots is what she’s going to shoot. Her game has been really good all year. It wouldn’t surprise me to see her put up some good scores down there.”
A continent away, he’ll be trying to do the same.