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written by
Hailey Wist

Setting Course

photographs by
Hailey Wist

Volume: 31

An Interview with PGA Pro and Kiawah Island Club Ambassador Ben Martin

Were you always a golfer?

I was, yeah. My dad was big into all sports, and golf was just one of them. He started taking me to the golf course when I was four or five years old—before I can really remember.

Did you have your own set of clubs?

I think he just went to a golf shop and bought a couple of used clubs and cut them down. I maybe had a 5-wood, a 3-wood, a few irons, a wedge, and a putter.

So when you say he was into all sports…

Oh, yeah, it depended on the time of the year. Generally, we’d play baseball in the spring, golf in the summer, backyard football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. I think that’s one of the things my dad did best. He spent a lot of time with my brother and me. He would come home from work, and if it was summer, we’d eat an early supper and then go to the golf course and play until dark. 

What a great childhood. Tell me about your career trajectory. Were you always serious about golf?

I just really enjoy playing the game. I wasn’t even the best player on my high school team. I didn’t have a great record as a junior player. I played mostly locally in South Carolina, so I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure.The coach at Clemson—Coach Penley—gave me a shot to essentially walk on the team. So I redshirted my first year. 

When did things start to change?

I think the first time I really thought I might be good enough to play professionally was after my second year at Clemson. I made the all conference team, the All-ACC. When I looked at the guys who had done it in their Clemson careers—there were only four or five guys who did it as a freshman—I saw they all played on the PGA tour at some point. 

And then you just picked up speed over the next few years? I mean, how old are you?

I’m thirty now.

So right out of college what happened?

Going into my final year at Clemson I was runner up in the U.S. Amateur Championship, which was probably the biggest amateur event in the world. That qualified me to play in the Masters. And I got to play in the U.S. Open. I was a little bit out of my comfort zone, being exposed to the guys I’d always watched on TV—you know, Tiger and Phil. So that gave me a chance to see how my game stacked up. And though I didn’t play very well in those events, I think I got to see that the best players in the world—the guys who play on the Tour every week—they are really good, but it’s not like I can’t do what they’re doing. And so I made it. I turned pro after playing in that U.S. Open in 2010 as an ameteur. 

Incredible. How did you adjust to being a professional?

Golf is weird in the sense that no team is going to draft you. It’s really up to you to perform and make your way. And so when you turn pro, you don’t really have to do anything—you just say, Okay, I’m going to play for money now. I started out in the local, single A tours and had a little bit of success. Then I made my way through the qualifying series to the PGA Tour right out of college. There was only one other guy, Joseph Bramlett, who came out of college and made it all the way through the qualifying series straight to the PGA Tour. 

You really had momentum at that time.

And I would say that was a little bit uncharacteristic of my career. When I first started high school I couldn’t even make the starting line up. When I got to Clemson, I redshirted and wasn’t really beating any of the guys on the team. So then to have a lot of success right when I turned pro and to make it straight into the PGA Tour—maybe I shocked myself a little bit by doing that. 

So what came next?

During my rookie year in the PGA Tour, I didn’t have a whole lot of success and lost my status. I went back down and played the Web.com Tour for two years. I think it was a good thing because, though it’s not the PGA Tour, the competition is still there. It gave me a chance to learn how to be a professional—which is less about the golf and probably more about learning how to travel and learning how to schedule your time.

And stay focused!

Yeah. You go through college and everything is mapped out for you—when you go to class, when you practice, when you travel. The Web.com Tour was a good learning experience for me and gave me some confidence. So when I did come back out on tour in 2014, I was way more prepared. 

When you were playing those early tournaments, like the U.S. Open, were you nervous? 

The first time I played in the U.S. Open, it was at Bethpage Black Course in New York. I played two holes on Thursday and we got rained out. On Friday I had made a couple birdies, and I was walking down number 18 (which was my ninth hole) at two under, and they were putting my name up at the top of the leaderboard. Tiger was below me. Talk about nerves! I think I made one more birdie and was tied for the lead, and then that realization sank in and I ended up bogeying my last five holes. The nerves got to me. 

Oh, but that is so understandable!

I think a lot of that is finding comfort and feeling like you belong. It was my first tournament competing against professionals and it was a major. I definitely wasn’t in my comfort zone. 

Do you get nervous now?

I think the nerves are what makes the competition so fun. If you’re out there in fiftieth place, then there’s really not a whole lot to play for. When there’s something big on the line and you’re under pressure and you start to feel those butterflies… That’s really where I find the joy in competing and being on tour. 

Very well said. Tell me about spending time on Kiawah.

We just had a little girl, and I got to bring her down for the first time with my parents and my wife’s parents and my brother and his wife. It’s been a great spot to spend time in our off weeks. The practice facilities are great. In the morning I can go work out at the fitness center and then hit balls, and in the afternoon I can go to the beach with the family and ride bikes. I can relax, but I can also practice whenever I want.

What’s your favorite course? 

You know, I’ve played Cassique a few more times than I’ve played River. I think Cassique is a little more friendly to the mid-handicap player, so when I play with my family they enjoy Cassique a little more. The River Course is as demanding of a course as we play anywhere on tour, especially if the wind is blowing. I’ve played The Ocean Course one time, but the wind wasn’t really blowing so I don’t think I got the full experience of how difficult the course can play.

And the PGA Championship is there in 2021. You’ll be there, right?

It’s hard to project three years out. I certainly hope to be playing in 2021, but we have to go earn our status and our job every year. 

Why do you think The Ocean Course is a good pick for the championship?

I’ve only played it one time, but I love Pete Dye courses. I just think he does a good job at challenging the player. If I remember correctly, Rory ran away with it in 2012, so I don’t think there was a whole lot of drama. I think that’s a good test. Whenever someone can separate themselves from the field—where not everybody is bunched up—I think it goes to show that the course is fair but difficult enough that if one guy is really playing well then he can separate himself from the rest of the pack. And for the PGA to like a place so much that they’re going to come back nine years later… then they did a lot right. 

Tell me about your daughter. What’s it like being a new dad?

Her name is Ann Pearce and she was born at the end of March. I don’t have another baby to compare her to, but so far it’s been a breeze. When she was ten days old, we put her in the car and took her down to Hilton Head for the Heritage.

No way.

And she came to Charlotte for the Wells Fargo Championship. We took her to THE PLAYERS and to Fort Worth. Kelly and I got married almost five years ago, and she started traveling with me. We’ve gotten into a great routine of life together on the road, so to have a little girl who seems to do well in that situation has been a big blessing. I’m sure we’ll have to feel it out. Hopefully we can be together as much as possible. 

What’s one thing you have to do to play well and stay focused? 

I think there’s a strong correlation between performance and sleep. And I think that a lot of golfers are creatures of routine. I’ll go out on Thursday and play in the morning and I’ll walk from the range to the chipping green and I’ll pass a guy. And then I’ll go out the next day, and we’re teeing off in the afternoon, and I’m walking from the range to the chipping green, and I’m walking past the exact same guy at the exact same spot. I don’t know if it’s all professional athletes or just golfers, but we all seem to be routine-oriented. 

Well, it makes sense. Performance is an elusive thing. 

Yeah. It’s sort of a process-oriented thing. So you focus on the steps and let the results happen, let the successes happen. Whether it’s in golf or anything else, I think you focus on the process—it’s huge. 

That’s a really good reminder for anyone I think. What’s camaraderie like on the Tour?

It’s different because you’re competing against guys on an individual basis. A lot of us hang out and go to dinner and play practice rounds together. Maybe it’s just the gentlemanly part of golf—you want to pull for the guys you’re playing with. And guys like George [Bryan] and Wesley [Bryan] and Russell [Henley]—guys you grew up playing golf with…I remember playing against George when we were both eight or nine years old in a State All-Star Tournament, and I think he won or finished second and I finished third. Seeing guys you played against when you were seven years old and then playing together in college and seeing the same people when you go pro—that’s part of it. You’ve known these guys coming up for so long.  — H.W.

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