EL PASO, Texas, May 6, 2007 – Last year, the winner of the El Paso Golf Classic won in a nine-hole playoff. This year, champion Mo Martin bounced back from a Saturday morning trip to the hospital and outlasted both a hard-charging Swede and the fast-sinking sun today for her first professional win.
Playing on the Duramed FUTURES Tour in her second season, the former UCLA collegian carded rounds of 69-71-67 to win the $80,000 event at 207 (-9), beating Caroline Larsson on the 18th hole by one shot. Larsson finished the week with rounds of 70-68-70 for second at 208 (-8).
“I was on my toes and I had to play my best,” said Martin, of Altadena, Calif., who earned $11,200 for her victory. “And right now, I can’t wipe the smile off my face.”
Martin and Larsson started their tug-of-war for the trophy during the first round on the Sunrise Course at Underwood Golf Complex, located on the U.S. Army’s Fort Bliss base. Martin grabbed the lead on Friday and was trailed by Larsson and Mexico’s Violeta Retamoza. Fierce gusts kicked up on Saturday, suspending play because of high wind for the first time in the Tour’s history. That forced 97 players to return to the course on Sunday to finish – or in Martin’s case, to start – the second round before playing the final round.
That’s when Martin knew her stars were lining up. She came down with a gastro-intestinal infection on Friday night and spent the entire night sleeping on a bed of towels on her housing host’s bathroom floor. Early Saturday morning, at the advice of a physician relative, she went to a local hospital and was hooked up to an IV for two hours. Her goal was to replenish the fluids she had lost throughout the night on Friday and to be ready for her Saturday afternoon tee time. When play was suspended before her round ever started, Martin went home for another day of R&R.
“I had Pedialyte, water, chicken broth and I snuck three saltine crackers on Saturday,” said Martin. “I felt tons better today, but I tried to be smart about my warm-up time this morning. I mostly putted and chipped and tried to get ready to play 36 holes.”
Even before the stomach ailment set in, Martin played in the Thursday pro-am with four local attorneys. One of the lawyers pulled a trick on Martin that gave her the feeling that he had read her mind. And two holes later in the pro-am, he told the Californian that she was going to win this week.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, I’d be the outside pick for sure, especially since my best finish before this was a tie for 13th,’” laughed Martin, who was a member of UCLA’s 2004 NCAA Championship team.
But it got her thinking -- even in the throes of illness and in the wooziness of recovery. Martin was playing well and now she was thinking about winning. Her mother, along with her 95-year-old grandfather, Lincoln Martin, had made the trip from California to El Paso to watch her play, and for some reason, things just felt right this week. But there was plenty of work to do.
Canada’s Salimah Mussani and Larsson got hot in the second round and grabbed the lead at 138 (-6). Mussani blistered the course with a seven-under-par score of 65 that included two eagles in her round, while Larsson fired a four-under 68 to keep hanging on. Martin shadowed them two shots back at 140 (-4).
“My putter worked really well and I used good course management,” said Larsson, a rookie from Danderyd, Sweden, who played collegiately at Florida State University. “And even though I only hit eight greens in regulation [in the second round], I had 21 putts today.”
The day’s first 18 holes, followed by a three-hour break until her tee time in the final group, was difficult for Mussani, who has Lupus. The temperature also dropped dramatically, which affected the Canadian’s circulation in her hands.
“I fought hard all day and I had my chances, but it wasn’t an ideal situation for me,” said Mussani of Burlington, Ontario, who carded a one-over-par 73 and tied for third with Song Yi Choi (69) of Seoul, Korea at 211 (-5).
Mussani ended up with a front-row seat to the best head-to-head match between two players all season. Larsson led by a shot after four holes, then Martin led by one after six holes, then Larsson and Martin were tied after seven holes, and the nip-and-tuck continued all the way to the 18th green.
Two shots ahead of any player in the field, Martin and Larsson were all square after 12 holes. It appeared that Martin might have committed a costly error on the par-five 14th hole when the Californian went for the green in two and landed in a bunker. But Martin pulled out her trusty 58-degree wedge and chipped – not taking any sand -- to four feet for birdie on top of Larsson’s own birdie.
“I just kept going and Caroline and I just kept making birdies,” said Martin.
Again, on the 16th hole, the two players landed their approach shots in nearly identical spots on the green. Martin putted first and burned the edge of the hole, giving Larsson a good view of the line and a chance to birdie with two holes to play. But Larsson missed the chance and the two moved to the 17th hole, still all square.
This time, with a gallery following in near-darkness, Martin and Larsson took their swings on the par-three 17th hole. Larsson missed the green to the back right and nearly chipped in for birdie, settling for par. Martin landed on the left fringe, putted from off the green and then rammed in a 12-foot par-saving putt to stay tied with Larsson as they headed to the 18th tee.
“It really did feel like match play and I was trying to make birdies to beat Mo,” said Larsson, a former member of the Swedish National Team. “At the same time, we were both trying to finish before dark.”
Still bruised from her Saturday IV treatment, Martin said she “had a clear target in mind” on the 18th tee. Her drive landed in perfect position, while Larsson’s drive sailed into a right fairway bunker. The Swede used a 7-wood out of the bunker and landed on the back of the green, 50 feet from the hole. Two putts later, she had a par and could only watch. Martin’s approach from 119 yards with a knock-down 9-iron landed within 1½ feet from the hole.
As they walked down the 18th fairway, Mussani, who won her first Tour title last season, smiled and asked the Californian if she was “in a good place?” Martin responded that she was in a “happy place.” And Martin stroked in her final birdie putt, squeezing out the last hint of daylight to win. Standing greenside was her grandfather and mother, the attorney with the Thursday prediction and Martin’s UCLA college pal, Gina Umeck.
“I feel it too,” said Umeck, of Redlands, Calif., as she pounded on her former teammate with glee.
Martin’s win moved her from 31st place on the money list to fifth, and converted her from a second-year, wannabe-winner to the sixth season champion in as many events. And between her second and final rounds, Martin received a text message from another former Bruin teammate, Charlotte Mayorkas. Mayorkas, who earned her 2007 LPGA Tour card by finishing second on the Duramed FUTURES Tour’s 2006 money list, sent a message to Martin that said, “Don’t step on that plane until you have the trophy.”
Good advice, Charlotte. Your old teammate was listening.
For scores and more information, visit www.duramedfuturestour.com.
Weather: Mostly cloudy, changing to mostly sunny with a high temperature of 73 degrees with wind around
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Photography: Michael Bradley