By JOHN REITMAN
Doug Martin’s first memories of golf conjure thoughts of a Norman Rockwell painting gracing the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
“I’ve been playing golf since I could walk,” Martin said. “I remember dad carrying me on one shoulder and his golf bag on the other.”
The coach of the University of Cincinnati men’s golf team since 2006, Martin, 47, was a state champion in high school, national champion in college and had a promising PGA Tour future before injury forced him off the course in 1999. It was his father, Lynn, a legendary prep coach in the area, who introduced him to the game and taught him the skills necessary to succeed at every step along the way.
“When he was in diapers he was in the yard hitting Wiffle Balls with a plastic club while I was practicing my game,” said Lynn Martin, who spent 30 years as a coach and teacher and led Van Buren to the boys Class A state golf championship in 1984. “It wasn’t long before he realized the balls he was hitting weren’t the same as the balls I was hitting. He was pretty dangerous hitting real balls, so we had to start practicing in a field.”
It also wasn’t long before the younger Martin dropped the “dangerous” label and replaced it with that of “prodigy.” Often he would tag along with his dad’s foursomes, dropping and playing a ball in the rough alongside the fairway where he wouldn’t be in the way.
“He was a pretty fast player,” Lynn Martin said. “He was always playing ahead of us. We never had to worry about him catching up.
“I’ve never seen anyone with so much passion for the game. He never got tired of it.”
The younger Martin’s game grew faster than the tall grass in the rough surrounding him.
By the time he was in first grade (yes, first grade), Doug graduated from playing outside the ropes to claiming a spot in his dad’s foursome. Innocently enough, he became the subject of patronizing questions like “Oh, are you beating dad today?” Described by his father as a “natural” on the golf course, he didn’t have to take such ribbing for long.
“I’m sure he thought he should be beating me, but I was always very competitive, so I wasn’t going to let him win just for the sake of winning. He was going to have to earn it,” said Lynn Martin, who himself is a scratch golfer. “One day, when he was about 13, we came home and I had to say ‘Today was the day. He got me.'”
Looking back, Doug is grateful he had to earn his way to the top of the family leaderboard. It has provided a lifetime of lessons that helped him succeed as a junior, a collegian and a pro and that he shares today with his players at the University of Cincinnati.
“Dad got me started in the game. He taught me the basic principles, and I developed a love and passion for the game,” Doug said. “To look at someone other than dad who was an impact on my youth, I would be remiss. He was THE source of my interest and provided me with an opportunity throughout junior golf.”
Doug Martin became the nation’s top junior player while at Van Buren and furthered his amateur career at the University of Oklahoma. There he achieved tremendous individual and team success, leading the Sooners to a national championship, and helped build a golf tradition at a school that had none.
Martin’s meteoric rise continued on the PGA Tour where he was one of the game’s promising young players for a decade before excruciating back pain ended his career at age 33.
Martin first played on the PGA Tour in 1989 and won $1.4 million over 10 years. His best season was 1997 when he made the cut in 22 of 30 events he entered, finished in the top 25 a total of 10 times and had three top-10 finishes on his way to earning $383,000.
Plagued by chronic back pain, tough, his game began to suffer.
“I’d never had an injury my entire career: wrist, shoulder, back, nothing,” he said. “Midway through the 1999 season it was to the point where I couldn’t even play.
“What was frustrating to me was that I was getting into the prime of my career. Most players go into their prime in their early 30s and go on through their mid- to late 30s, then you kind of wait for the Senior Tour (now Champions Tour). I was just getting into my prime and starting to play some of my best golf.”
Today, Martin imparts his wisdom and knowledge of the game on his players at the University of Cincinnati, where, like at Oklahoma, he is building a tradition at a school that has none. He has turned UC into a top 100 program, finishing with a ranking of No. 93 this past season. Two of his players have gone on to compete in the U.S. Amateur Championship.
Not every Tour pro is cut out for coaching, but not every player has Martin’s pedigree. For Martin, the transition from player to mentor was a natural career progression.
“He grew up around the game and he was always around adults and played with adults,” said Lynn Martin. “I think that helped him a lot.”
The younger Martin’s emphasis on developing players’ skills from 150 yards and in mirrors what his father taught when he coached at Van Buren.
“That is where players spend a lot of time,” Doug said. “You have to be a good short iron player, a good wedge player, good around the greens and a good putter. Those are the things that separate college golfers. Those who don’t have a good short game get left behind.”
For Martin, who last played golf three years ago, his role as teacher and coach goes far beyond numbers scrawled onto a scorecard. Teaching life skills to his players outweighs influencing their ability as golfers.
“I want to be able to look back and say I impacted the kids in a positive way,” he said. “I’m a role model for them. I want to teach them not only about golf, but about being a father and being a man. Those are things that are more important.”
He had a good role model of his own growing up.
Two years after Martin earned Class A medalist honors at the 1982 OHSAA state championship, the Black Knights won the team title. At that time, Martin had become one of the nation’s top junior players.
He was a member of the American Junior Golf Association All-American team in 1984 and again in 1985, a list that includes other eventual PGA Tour players like Billy Mayfair, Bob May, David Toms, Steve Flesch, Brian Watts and Clark Dennis.
He won the 1984 U.S. Junior Amateur match play championship 4-and-2 over Brad Agee at Wayzata Country Club in Minnesota. Martin won two other junior events that year, including one staged by the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of Orange County in California.
Known today as The Trusted Choice Big I National Championship, the tournament is touted as the nation’s largest and most prestigious junior stroke-play tournament. Martin finished third in the event in 1983 and came back to win it a year later, joining past champions like Bobby Clampett, Bob Tway and Billy Andrade. It was then that Martin began to contemplate a life in golf that would extend beyond the boundaries of northwest Ohio.
“When I saw I could go out there and compete against the best junior golfers in the world I knew I had something pretty good going,” he said.
Soon, schools with established golf programs such as Ohio State, Texas and Oklahoma State came calling. Even Ohio State alumnus Jack Nicklaus called to make a sales pitch for his alma mater.
But it was a call from then-Oklahoma coach Gregg Grost that influenced Martin’s path.
During the summer of 1983, Grost had asked one of his players who he had seen on the summer junior circuit that stood out. The player told Grost that some kid from Ohio named Doug Martin was the best player he’d competed against — ever. That was all Grost needed to hear as he called Martin and, site-unseen, offered a full scholarship over the phone.
Full scholarships for golf were a rare commodity in those days, and for a coach in Oklahoma to offer one over the phone to a kid 900 miles away in Ohio who he’d never seen play was even more uncommon.
“I thought it was a mistake. I’d been telling him he had to have another good summer if he wanted to play college golf,” Lynn Martin said. “Turns out I was wrong. One good summer was enough. At least it was for him.”
Grost’s intuition was correct. At Oklahoma, Martin was a three-time All-American and the Sooners finished third, second, second and first in the NCAA Championships during his four years there.
In Martin’s senior season of 1989, the Sooners beat runner-up Texas by 19 strokes to win the NCAA Championship. It was the largest margin of victory since Wake Forest won by 33 strokes in 1975.
To help illustrate the talent on hand that year, the individual medalist was a kid playing out of Arizona State by the name of Phil Mickelson.
“Oklahoma was a program on the rise,” Martin said. “The others I was looking at, they already had built a foundation and already had a legacy. Oklahoma was just starting to build one. I wanted to be part of that.
“I was part of something. We built something there, and we won a championship by 19 strokes. Not a lot of programs can say that.”
He wants to bring that same feeling of accomplishment to Cincinnati. And since 2006, he’s leaned on lessons taught by his father to do just that, drilling into his team that there are no shortcuts for success and that the path to signing a winning card in the scorer’s tent goes through the practice area.
“I want kids to leave school as a better player,” he said. “That comes how they manage the course, how they practice, how they use their time, their fundamentals. Those are things we look at and talk about over the course of their four years here.
“I want kids who in four years can leave here with an education of not only knowing how to play the game better, but how to manage their game and how to manage practice time and do the things necessary to be a great player.”
He should know. He’s been doing it since he started walking.
John Reitman is director of news, editorial and education for TurfNet.com, a news and information resource for golf course superintendents. He can be reached at email@example.com
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