Rookie Piller writing the script to his own adventure

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Martin Piller grew quite a crowd while playing in New Zealand.
March 24, 2009
Dave Lagarde, Contributor

BROUSSARD, La. -- Cinderella, or in this case Cinderfella, stories are always kind of neat -- the kind that generate warm and fuzzy feelings when someone obscure finds unexpected success.

So, meet Martin Piller. And don't bother to ask whether the golf slipper fits. It does, quite comfortably, for the Nationwide Tour rookie.

Here's the deal: To say that the start of the 2009 Nationwide Tour season has been a joy ride for Piller, 23, would be a Grand Canyon-sized understatement. Matter of fact, it has engulfed his entire professional career, which spans all of eight months.

Just consider the things Piller, who never won a collegiate event in four seasons at Texas A&M, accomplished once he started playing for pay.

He scored a stunning triumph in his first professional event, joining Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw, Jack Burke Jr. and fellow Aggie Jeff Maggert on the glittering list of Texas State Open champions.

He had an immediate impact on the Gateway Tour, scoring a third and a sixth in four events.

Then, in what arguably was his toughest test, he negotiated the land mines of the PGA TOUR National Qualifying Tournament, including the pre-qualifier, the ignominious place where players with no resumes are assigned. A grand total of two players -- Alabama graduate Joseph Sykora and Piller -- completed the qualifying grand slam.

Piller rode that confidence-building wave of momentum into 2009, traveling to Panama, Australia and New Zealand for the first four events on golf courses he had never seen before in faraway places he had never been. He made three cuts. More impressive than that, two of the three were top 10s: He tied for eighth at the Moonah Classic in Australia and was runner-up in the Michael Hill New Zealand Open. That pair is the reason he currently is fifth among "THE 25" with $81,608 in earnings, ranking only behind the four champions this season.

All in all, that's not bad for starters.

But wait. Dig deeper, and Piller's excellent adventure gets better.

He figured he'd graduate from A&M in August, maybe take an assistant professional position and see what might happen sometime down the road. One thing was certain: He had absolutely no intention of going through the rigors of q-school. Not because he didn't have game; he didn't have the entry fee.

His only aim when he entered the Texas State Open in late July was to settle a $2,000 debt he had with his father. That's the reason he declared himself a professional when he filled out the entry form.

"That tournament changed my life,'' said Piller, who won $25,000, got out of hock and decided to give q-school a whirl. "If you would have told me a year ago I would be out here, I would have told you that you were crazy.''

Now, brimming with confidence, he's the author of what he termed a "dream-come-true'' start. This from a guy whose game went so far south during his senior season at A&M he did not compete in a single event after February.

"I had all these expectations,'' he said. "There was so much leadership from the seniors in my first three years at school. I thought I'd step into the role and play well. I really think I tried too hard.''

Piller is making the game look easy. There he was Tuesday, strolling from the practice range to the first tee at Le Triomphe Country Club, site of this week's Chitimacha Louisiana Open presented by Dynamic Industries, accepting warm-hearted congratulations from a number of veteran pros who made it a point to stop him.

"Stellar play,'' said Joe Daley.

"Good going,'' said Scott Gardiner.

Piller modestly accepted the accolades.

"That's the coolest thing,'' he said. "When I was down in Panama (at the season's first tournament), I didn't know a soul. It was just me and my caddie. Now I feel like I know everybody.''

At the very least, everyone knows him. And the respect for his game is growing like mushrooms after a spring thunderstorm.

"Amazing story,'' said Neil Wilkins, Piller's Sugarland, Texas-based instructor. "It goes to show you anything is possible.''

Under Wilkins, Piller has learned the intricacies of his swing, a fact that allows him to make the appropriate corrections when something goes awry.

"Martin is the most self sufficient student I've ever had,'' said Wilkins, who worked with PGA TOUR winner Ryan Palmer for seven years. "I can tell him one thing, and he'll do it forever without questioning it. A lot of these guys miss a shot or two, and they start doubting.''

Piller gives the impression that 'doubt' isn't in his vocabulary at the moment, thanks to his great start.

"I feel like I belong out here, and I feel like I can win out here,'' he said.

Wilkins stood off to the side, smiling as his pupil spoke. He was still smiling, all warm and fuzzy, after Piller headed to the tee to begin his first practice round at Le Triomphe.

"It's fun to be part of this ride,'' he said.