Martin Trainer: I changed my life in one week

April 30, 2019

Photo by Thierry Des Fontaines

Heading south for your fourth season of PGA Tour Latinoamérica isn't a good feeling. There are worse things than waking up and playing golf, obviously, but it means being away from home and not making money. Few vocations have that combo. A lot of new pros stay in the United States all summer and wait for qualifying—what everybody now calls Q school—in the fall. There's no hope of profit on the Lat Am. It's just a season points race for the top spot to get full status, with some guaranteed starts for the next guys. You're competing for the chance to have a job.

It felt like Groundhog Year. On my way to the Lat Am in March 2018, I almost didn't bother stopping at the qualifier for the El Bosque Mexico Championship, a event. The only way you'd ever know about this qualifier is if someone told you. As a rookie, it's not obvious where to play and when. By this point I'd picked up enough Spanish to navigate the Mexican PGA website and sign up. Best-case scenario, I figured, was I'd get into a Web event, play well enough to pocket five grand, then continue on to the opening event of PGA Tour Latinoamérica. I was not feeling optimistic about my game or life.

You have to be kind of delusional to pursue pro golf. When you're young, you don't understand how hard it is to make it. You practice and practice with the thought you'll keep improving and eventually, maybe be good enough. That's how I remember thinking when I was 14, swatting balls in a field at my grandparents' house in Marseilles, France. They lived in a converted barn, and our extended family would congregate there in summer. I was born in France and lived there until I was 5, but then we moved to Palo Alto, Calif.

My parents didn't play golf. But with all the warm weather and public courses, it was a natural thing to try. As soccer and tennis fell away, I got serious. That summer I brought my clubs to France. It was the last one we spent there. The treeline across my grandparents' field I lasered at 200 yards, enough for long irons.

I won the San Francisco City Amateur when i was 16. Beating all the men, that felt like a big deal. Until then there'd been the really good kids—the kids qualifying and going far in USGA events, the next Tigers—and I hadn't been one of them.

Even when I was at the University of Southern California, i was in the background. I wasn't ranked very high, and I didn't play the national summer schedule of amateur events. We played so much during the school year, I wasn't up for extra travel. My senior year I had an elbow injury and took the season off. I turned pro after graduation because I had it in mind I'd try. I had the raw tools—I hit it far and had soft touch—but I'd never showed sustained stretches of brilliance. Just flashes.

I was clueless. All I knew about PGA Tour Latinoamérica, I'd found on the Internet. The tournaments are run well, and going down there was exciting—at first. After a few seasons of only marginal progress, I weighed applying for random tech jobs near my hometown.

You can't say it was directly responsible, but the week before the El Bosque qualifier, I made an equipment change. I got on a launch monitor that measured my lie angle at impact and discovered, theoretically, that my irons should be way upright. Like 5 degrees. I'm fairly tall [6–1] with long arms, and I stand close to the ball. One clubfitter refused on ideological grounds, and another on technical—the hosels would break, he said. They made noises, but they didn't break.

I started hitting more shots on line. Instead of good strikes finishing 10 or 20 feet, they were on the stick at the El Bosque. I shot six under and survived a three-for-one playoff. I actually felt sick in the playoff because I'd laid up on the last hole, a par 5, thinking six under was plenty.

Then in a huge surprise, I win the web event. Boom! No more Lat Am tour for me. I miss nine of my next 13 cuts on the Tour, but then win again in Missouri in July. I finish fourth in the season standings to earn my 2018-'19 PGA Tour card.

After making only three cuts in eight events, I win the PGA Tour's Puerto Rico Open in February. My life changes again. Instead of worrying about keeping my card and playing every chance I get, I can start to make my schedule.

The other day I was hitting balls next to Justin Rose. It's surreal being around the guys I grew up watching on TV. But I had a warped concept of how tour life would be. I imagined the PGA Tour would be this huge party with amazing restaurants, and everyone is a mini-celebrity. But the stress is more than I anticipated. Having so much riding on your play can be a burden. Instead of getting upset at a shot, you're getting upset at yourself. My therapist is also a sport psychologist, and he's helping me shine a light on underlying stuff that could be coming up on the course. As for the great champions, when you play with them you realize they're not perfect, either. It's possible to beat them.

It's funny. Once I turned pro, I lost touch with golf media and culture. My life was too saturated with the game to read about it or watch on TV. But now I flick on the Golf Channel, and they're talking about the tournament I'm playing in. It's bizarre. How can I not watch?—with Max Adler