KAPALUA, Hawaii — Just about anyone who plays golf professionally—or plays golf at all, for that matter—experiences his share of highs and lows. The 34 competitors in this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions experienced the ultimate high of winning a PGA Tour event in 2019. And, sure, they’ve all likely swallowed their own flavor of discontent, too.
Martin Trainer, then, really is no different. In just his ninth start as a tour member, he won the Puerto Rico Open thanks to a closing five-under 67 at Coco Beach Golf & Country Club. Until that three-stroke victory, the San Francisco resident hadn’t done much, finishing no better than a T-28 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
Trainer didn’t qualify for the Masters in the event held opposite the WGC-Mexico Championship, but he did earn a ticket to Maui, which is no small thing with guaranteed earnings, FedEx Cup points and drop-dead gorgeous views of the Pacific.
Those happen to be big things to Trainer, though. Especially the guaranteed cash and points, which are the coin of the realm as a tour member. Four rounds of golf are nice, too. Trainer doesn’t take this for granted, either.
Trainer, you see, has had more than his share of lows since his victory last February. He’s been on an express elevator down to the 12th circle of golf hell. He has missed 17 cuts since then and his last 14 in a row starting at the PGA Championship in May. He hasn’t gotten to the pay window since he finished 66th at the Valero Texas Open in early April.
“The last seven months … it’s been a tough streak,” he said, volunteering the obvious.
Coming to the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort is the perfect place for a reset. And to remember the performance that got him here.
“It’s kind of amazing, really,” Trainer, 28, said Thursday after opening with a one-over 74 that left him smiling and a bit relieved—or maybe smiling because he was relieved. “You win a tournament, and then after a while you find yourself saying, ‘I think I can play golf,’ but I know it’s like you almost stop believing that you can, you know, even though you did.”
Twice a winner in 2018 on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour, Trainer said that his swing was never truly reliable. So there is plenty of talent in his fit 6-foot-1 frame. “I managed it pretty well, but I was inconsistent,” he said. “I would get it around the fairway, and then I would get it somewhere on the green. But the week I won, I did play really well.”
And then the week after, at the Honda Classic, not so well, missing the cut. And then from there, he endured a steady downward spiral that he just didn’t know how to stop, like trying to hold onto a greased lamp post.
After a victory, a player is buoyed with confidence, because winning a tour event is among the hardest things to do in sports. The percentages are not good, especially for players like Trainer, new to the tour and hovering around 360 in the World Rankings. He wants to build on that success, ride the wave of exhilaration and accomplishment. He naturally figures that he has the tools to prosper. He has proven that.
But it didn’t play out that way for Trainer.
“Yeah, I felt really good, but sometimes, you can’t control what happens to you,” said the USC product. “I played pretty well after Puerto Rico, but not great, and then it started going a little downhill, and then it started going way down hill, and then I kind of was lost for a couple months trying to figure out how to hit the ball straight.”
Trainer came to Kapalua hitting just 45 percent of his fairways this season and sporting a -2.273 average in strokes gained/off the tee. Last season he ranked 186th in driving accuracy while finding short grass slightly more than 50 percent of the time. Combine that with barely a 60-percent success rate in greens in regulation, and it’s no wonder he struggled.
Though he grew up in California, Trainer is a native of Marseille, France. (His father is American and his mother French.) He turned pro in 2013 and started his career in the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, where he also won a title. He knows how to play the game. But knowing how to play the game and executing shots reside in different realms of the performance matrix.
After missing five starts to begin the 2019-’20 season, Trainer took the rest of the year off to get his head straight as well as his swing. He has employed instructor Jeff Smith out of Las Vegas to revamp his entire approach, and after three weeks of work, Trainer put it to the test at Kapalua. Overall, Trainer wasn’t displeased with what he saw after finding eight fairways and 13 greens on Thursday. He struggled on the greens, taking 31 putts—not unusual for a first-timer at the quirky, newly renovated Plantation Course, so he ventured to the practice putting green immediately after signing his card and put in a quick five minutes of drills.
He could smile a bit, which he did often behind dark sunglasses.
“It’s hard. I had to find a way to get more consistent,” he said. “We’ve made pretty drastic changes. So, it’ll take a while. We’re just trying to get it a little more on plane. I’m standing a little further from the ball, getting all different swing points. … It’s quite the change, and it’s not easy to get comfortable.”
Fortunately, he has time. The two-year tour exemption from his Puerto Rico win affords him a healthy buffer to weather this downturn. And he has time this week, with four guaranteed rounds. “Yeah,” he interjected quickly at the mention of that perk, “that is a nice thing for me.”
It helps that Hawaii always has been a comfortable place for him. In 2014, Trainer got through Monday qualifying at the Sony Open in Hawaii, but he missed the cut despite a second-round 69. He has returned every year since for the Monday qualifier, except last year, when he was in the field as a tour member. His T-73 yielded his second of the seven paychecks for the season.
“I love coming out here. It’s like my favorite trip,” said Trainer, who has a close buddy, Elliot Snow, on the bag to further take pressure off him this week and afford him the chance to enjoy the experience. “It’s so nice to just not have to worry about me missing the cut and just to be able to play and, obviously, it’s just good to start off the year on a positive note.”
He has hopes for better days. All golfers do. It’s just relative. Trainer remains positive in the face of a frustrating period, one that is not alien to many of his peers. At least he has a victory. He has status. That’s a lot. He has time, and he has a plan.
“It’s been discouraging at times,” he said. “It’s been clear that something has been a little off compared to the best guys out here. Not that I try to even compare myself to some of them. Obviously, that’s not very healthy to do. It just seems so much easier for other guys. But I have to feel fortunate to have had that good result.
“You know,” he added, “all you can do is the best that you can.”
If nothing else, he knows what his best can produce.