Fort Worth pro golf couple seek to build on breakthrough seasons

For most married couples, a fifth-anniversary return to their honeymoon destination marks a special milestone.

But this week’s trip to Hawaii carried more than romance and nostalgia for a pair of professional golfers from Fort Worth seeking to build on last year’s breakthrough seasons that thrust both into the national spotlight.

Martin Piller, 30, is back on the PGA Tour because of a two-win season on the 2015 Tour after a five-year hiatus.

He arrived with plans to compete at the Sony Open in Hawaii, which concludes Sunday, but learned Wednesday that he did not make the field as an alternate. So the trip turned into an opportunity to practice and sightsee with his favorite golf partner: Gerina Piller, 30, an LPGA Tour veteran who sank the pivotal putt that triggered a comeback victory by the U.S. team over the Europeans at the 2015 Solheim Cup.

They will be together again this week when Martin Piller competes in Thursday’s opening round of the Career Builder Challenge in La Quinta, Calif., in his first tour stop of 2016.

The couple married in 2011 and, a day later, headed to Honolulu for a honeymoon that overlapped Martin’s appearance in the Sony Open to begin his rookie season. Gerina, an LPGA newcomer at the time, embraced the full-circle symmetry involved with their return trip to Honolulu.

But she made sure to issue a playful reminder during a recent practice session at Shady Oaks Country Club that this return to their honeymoon destination could have happened a little sooner, all things considered.

“I like to tease Martin and say, ‘I don’t mind going back to the Sony Open for our anniversary. But can we do it every year, instead of every five years?’ ” Gerina Piller said.

Moments later, the discussion drifted to the possibility of the Pillers celebrating their 2017 anniversary in Kapalua, Hawaii, site of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. The field for that event, held the first week in January, is limited to PGA Tour tournament winners from the previous season.

“No pressure,” Martin Piller said, smiling.

Few in the professional golf community would be surprised to see either Piller win a tour title this season. The two made headlines in 2011 when they competed as the first pair of married rookies in the same season on the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour.

But Martin lost his PGA Tour exemption after that season, triggering an eventual epiphany in 2014 that he “wasn’t that good” in relation to peers on the Tour and needed to improve his work ethic.

He followed with last year’s two-win season on the Tour, highlighted by tournament-record performances during victories at the Boise Open (28-under par) and Digital Ally Open (26-under) to return to the big circuit.

Gerina has remained a consistent producer on the LPGA Tour, with $2,128,585 in career earnings, but still seeks her first tournament title. She has made steady progress since hiring Mike Wright, the head golf professional at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth, as her swing coach in 2013.

She earned a career-best $727,681 at LPGA Tour stops last season, highlighted by runner-up finishes at the Meijer LPGA Classic and the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship on Nov. 19.

But her signature moment came at the 2015 Solheim Cup, where she closed out Europe’s Caroline Masson 1-up by making a 12-foot putt on the final hole of her singles match to help the U.S. rally for a 14  1/2 to 13 1/2 victory. If Piller had missed, Europe would have retained the cup with a 14-14 tie.

Several peers, including 2015 U.S. Solheim Cup captain Juli Inkster, believe Gerina’s taste of international success in Germany could be her catapult to bigger and better things when the 2016 LPGA Tour season opens Jan. 25-31 with the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic.

Wright believes both Pillers, who have been Fort Worth residents and Shady Oaks members since 2013, are poised to improve on last year’s breakout seasons because both are still improving as golfers and approach the game with upbeat attitudes. But they hone their craft in different ways.

“They have totally different practice styles,” Wright said. “Gerina will grind over one or two shots for hours. You have to make her change her focus. And Martin will practice different topics for five or 10 minutes at a time. But he’s getting it done his way and she’ll get it done her way. It’s another example, I guess, that opposites attract.”

Fateful first meeting

It took a NASCAR-related golf outing at TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney to bring the Pillers together for the first time in 2009. From Gerina’s standpoint, it took less than one hole to make her wish she would have been paired with another cart partner that day.

The round began with promise when both golfers, who were Dallas residents at the time, discovered they shared the same practice facility (Sherrill Park in Richardson) and attended the same church, Watermark Community Church in Dallas. But Gerina recalled “wanting to ditch him” after Martin’s approach shot at No. 1, which he admired a little too fervently in her estimation.

“He puts his club down in the bag, looks at me and he was like, ‘I hate hitting it dead perfect every time,’ ” Gerina Piller said. “And I was like, ‘There’s 17 more holes. Who is this guy? This guy is such a tool.’ … This guy validated why I wasn’t dating anybody and I had kind of made up my mind that I was just going to marry golf and pursue the Lord. He was just very annoying.”

Martin, a former Texas A&M golfer, also was very persistent. But Gerina, who played college golf at UT El Paso under her maiden name (Gerina Mendoza), was not immediately swayed. A day after their round at Craig Ranch, Martin learned that Gerina was a member at Lakewood Country Club in Dallas and suggested they play a future round at that venue.

“There’s a little filter in your brain that filters your words and I had removed that,” Gerina Piller said. “And so I told him, ‘Well, if you’re going to ask me out, you might as well do it now and I can say ‘no’ and we can be friends. He kind of just looked at me. I gave him my number and he walked away. And I was like, ‘It worked.’ 

But that was far from the end of the story.

“Come Monday, he called and wanted to play some golf so I gave him a second chance,” Gerina Piller said. “He was a little less annoying, but we got through it and he magically forgot his range finder. To this day, I think he did it on purpose so, of course, I had to see him again.

“Then, we started hanging out and I went to his birthday party with his family, which was a little quick for me. But I did it. And then, pretty soon, I was at Q-school and we were going to a Bible study together. And a year later we were married.”

Martin acknowledged that, after growing up in Duncanville, the lure of a round at upscale Lakewood “was looking pretty good” to him when he first pitched the idea.

“I thought, ‘That would be cool to go play there and hang out,’ ” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time. We started hanging out a little bit more that week, but, yes, we bounced back.”

All the way to a wedding ceremony on Jan. 8, 2011.

Tough travel issues

Any venture in professional golf involves travel-related challenges, and the Pillers have faced their share as a married couple. They have spent as many as six consecutive weeks apart while competing on their separate tours. Their first year as a married couple included 142 days apart. Martin counted. After that, he said: “I stopped adding it up.”

That makes the start of the 2016 season, when Gerina will be with Martin at two consecutive tournaments, a rarity. After that, the long-distance relationship resumes with Gerina playing four of her first five events in the Bahamas, Australia, Thailand and Singapore.

To keep in touch, they Skype frequently. But sometimes, those efforts are neutralized by time-zone differences.

“It’s really tough when she goes over to Asia,” Martin Piller said. “When she’s in Thailand and Singapore, when I’m waking up, she’s going to bed.”

The upside is that professional golfers are independent contractors, offering flexibility to pick and choose events where they play. Sometimes, that means skipping an event on your tour to support your spouse.

When Gerina made her signature putt at the Solheim Cup, one of the first individuals to offer a congratulatory hug on the 18th green in St. Leon-Rot, Germany, was Martin. Likewise, Gerina was there to greet Martin in Overland Park, Kan., after last year’s victory at the Digital Ally Open. It marks the only time in their marriage that either has been on hand to watch the other win a tournament.

“I’ve seen a lot of people win golf tournaments. But when it’s your husband, it’s pretty awesome,” Gerina Piller said.

When Martin won in Boise, Idaho, Gerina followed the final holes on her cellphone while waiting for a flight after completing play at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open in Lancaster, Pa. Both acknowledged having more jitters while watching the other in the hunt for a victory than while trying to close the deal themselves between the ropes.

For Martin, that was particularly nerve-wracking at the Solheim Cup because players represent their country and the penultimate victory or loss is shared between 12 teammates.

“With the team deal, everything is magnified because I knew she didn’t want to let down her team,” Martin Piller said. “It was the most nervous I’ve ever been, way more nervous than when I’m playing a tournament. But she killed it.”

Breakthrough seasons

Gerina described her pivotal putt at the Solheim Cup as a 12-footer with left-to-right break that resembled a similar putt she missed at the 17th green. As she lined it up, she noticed a scoreboard near the 18th green that relayed the do-or-die nature of her attempt to prolong hopes for a U.S. victory after the Americans began the day with a 10-6 deficit.

During countless practice sessions, she’d envisioned herself in a similar position. But this was different.

“You kind of practice it, but you can’t re-create the pressure and the atmosphere,” she said. “This is what you practice for. I had the putt to keep our hopes alive. To make a putt with that much pressure was very exciting and was something I’ll never forget. It’s kind of surreal.”

For a power player known more for her long drives than her clutch short game, the impact of that putt could be incalculable, in Wright’s estimation. A multi-sport athlete while growing up in Roswell, N.M., Gerina did not begin playing golf until high school. Wright believes she is just now reaching an optimum blend of physical skills, confidence and on-course knowledge.

“Now, she’s looking for the stage instead of wondering if she belongs on it,” Wright said.

Gerina Piller said: “I heard it a lot growing up that I wasn’t the greatest putter but I could hit it far. I was glad that I hit that putt and it went in and I could silence the critics of my putting and for myself.”

In similar fashion, her husband vanquished some golf demons of his own in 2015 by changing his mental approach and his work habits from the early stages of his career. As a PGA Tour rookie in 2011, Martin Piller said he was “star-struck, a little bit” when competing in events with established veterans or major champions.

“I had this thought in my head that, ‘Those guys are really good and I’m kind of good. But I’m not as good as them. So there was this gap that existed in my mind,’ ” he said. “This year, it’s more, ‘No big deal.’ I’m past that feeling from a mental perspective.”

Physically, his skills were good enough to carry him to two titles, five top-10 finishes and the No. 2 spot on last year’s Tour money list ($343,649). He posted a season scoring average of 69.93 but caught Wright’s attention by being able to sustain a hot streak of putting and ball-striking that began with his July 12 victory in Boise (28 under) through an Aug. 9 triumph in Overland Park, Kan. (26 under).

“Martin’s run last year was incredible,” Wright said. “If he could do that again, it’s going to translate at the next level.”

Genuine personalities

Despite their burgeoning careers, what speaks loudest to peers about the Pillers is their upbeat personalities and willingness to give back to others. Before heading to Hawaii, they began their anniversary weekend by hosting two College Golf Fellowship retreats for more than 80 college golfers that included Bible study, golf and spirited games of WhirlyBall, a creative mix of bumper cars, basketball, hockey and jai alai.

Gerina held the three-day session for 25 female golfers at their home in Fort Worth while Martin oversaw 57 male golfers at a facility in Benbrook.

“Some girls are lucky to get a bed. The rest just find some carpet,” Gerina said of the sleeping arrangements at the Piller house, which marked their second consecutive year to host a girls group. Both players said the annual sessions are meaningful to them because they were significant to Martin during his college years and it provides them an opportunity to share their Christian faith and give back to others at a similar stage of their lives.

Martin said the ministry “has been a huge part of my life,” with Brad Payne, president of the CGF Central Region, performing their wedding ceremony in 2011. Wright recalled another occasion when Gerina led an impromptu expedition of teen golfers to Top Golf in The Colony, then posted photos of the action on her Instagram account.

“Together, they’re just as down-to-earth as you could ever want. Really sweet people,” Wright said. “One of the sweetest traits they both have is unique for professional athletes. With most professional athletes, understandably, the world kind of revolves around them and they get used to talking about themselves. And before you know it, they’re so used to talking about themselves that they can’t communicate with other people.

“But Martin and Gerina are always more interested in you as opposed to themselves. That goes for both of them. They always have that quality of asking about your family, your business and your life.”

Angela Stanford, a Fort Worth resident and five-time winner on the LPGA Tour, is one of Gerina’s closest friends and a frequent practice partner at LPGA events and Shady Oaks. She described Piller as someone who has worked for everything she’s gotten in life, making her the type of person that doesn’t take things, or people, for granted.

Competitive traits

As competitors, the Pillers — like most professional athletes — rarely take a back seat. Not even to one another. Gerina said: “We find ourselves competing, basically, at everything.”

The list includes, but is not limited to, endeavors Martin described as “mostly stupid stuff.”

Among them: 1) Which person can be the first to activate cell service after their flight lands at an airport; 2) Which person will have the highest percentage of available battery power on the cellphone at the end of the day; 3) Which person can be the first to discard an empty, disposable coffee cup in a nearby trash can in a public setting.

The lone exception is golf, where competitive rounds were taken off the table long ago.

“We decided, for the sake of our marriage, it’s wise not to do that,” Gerina said. “If we’re going to play golf competitively, we’re going to be on the same team. He’s not going to gain anything from beating me, and I’m not going to gain anything from beating him.”

But they will play practice rounds together at Shady Oaks. One of those rounds produced one of Wright’s favorite mementos in his office: a signed golf ball from March 25, 2014. That day, both Pillers posted bogey-free rounds at Shady Oaks, a par-71 course. Gerina shot a 69. Martin carded a 64. The scores are listed on the ball.

As both golfers seek to improve this season, both are hoping for more bogey-free rounds. Neither has set a performance-based goal related to victories or money-list finish.

Instead, Gerina hopes to shave a stroke per day off last year’s scoring average (71.21). Is that possible?

“I think so,” she said. “It’s a matter of fine-tuning parts of my game, here and there, and being more consistent. If you could get better by one stroke a day out here, that’s huge over an entire year.”

Martin, meanwhile, is focused on process-oriented goals.

“If I can set a physical goal, I want to be a better iron player. That’s what holds me back,” he said. “But I do my best when I think about process goals like, ‘I want to be committed to each shot.’ 

That means he’ll head into Thursday’s opening round at the PGA West Stadium Course with one primary objective.

“My goal this year is to be great, at each tournament I play and on each shot I play,” he said. “If I do that, I execute. And I’ll be in good shape.”

Good enough, perhaps, that the Pillers will need to make this anniversary trip to Hawaii an annual excursion in future seasons.

Jimmy Burch: 817-390-7760, @Jimmy_Burch

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