How Martin And Gerina Piller Balance Marriage And Pro Golf
Five days after making the biggest putt of her life, a 10-footer for par on the final hole of a tight match in a tense Solheim Cup to keep a huge American rally going, Gerina Piller was a spectator, not a golfer.
Her husband, Martin, who had been in Germany nervously watching his wife of almost five years hole a putt that mattered so much, was in Ohio playing in the Nationwide Children's Hospital Championship. He shot a second-round 76, missing his fourth straight cut on the Web.com Tour.
Golf can be great, or it can be a grind. In less than a week, the Pillers were reminded of what they know so well as a rare couple who compete professionally.
The majority of golfers probably stay far away from other golfers, because if you date a golfer, you're going to travel even more. It's not an appealing aspect.Gerina Piller
While Gerina, 30, was relishing her role in the United States' stunning 14½-13½ comeback victory Sept. 20 over Europe, Martin, 29, was trying to rediscover the form he showed during the summer when he won two Web.com tournaments in less than a month to secure a PGA Tour card for the 2015-16 season.
"Golf is pretty finicky," said Gerina. "You can be off a fraction in your ball position and it can turn into 20 yards off-line on your drive. It definitely is a roller coaster. What you have to remind yourself is that as fast as it leaves, it can come back just as fast. We've definitely gone through good times and slumps with our games."
The Pillers, who will celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in January, met in late 2009 playing golf with some NASCAR drivers in Texas. Sharing a cart for 18 holes didn't at first look like a fast track to romance because Martin was trying too hard to impress her. Before long, though, the overly confident guy who had been annoying when they met was on the phone talking at length about serious subjects. "His love for the Lord definitely got my attention," Gerina said. "He grew on me. He won me over."
Their connection won out despite the logistical realities of both being pro golfers. As Gerina said: "The majority of golfers probably stay far away from other golfers, because if you date a golfer, you're going to travel even more. It's not an appealing aspect."
There aren't too many examples of other couples who have done what the Pillers are doing. The most notable marriage of athletes in the same sport probably was tennis' Chris Evert and John Lloyd, who were married from 1979 to 1987. Softball pitcher Jennie Finch and baseball pitcher Casey Daigle, and basketball players Candace Parker and Shelden Williams also balanced pro sports with marriage. In golf, Laura Baugh and Bobby Cole were married twice and had seven children together during their respective tour careers.
Martin and Gerina work at studying their respective travel schedules so that they're usually not apart for more than a couple of weeks. It means a lot when one can root on the other in person. That Gerina -- through a successful partnership with Stacy Lewis and her clutch win over Caroline Masson in singles -- was such a key cog in the U.S. Solheim Cup victory made Martin's journey to Germany all the better.
Gerina, who grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, and didn't take up golf until she was 15, hasn't won in four seasons on the LPGA Tour, although she has had 18 top-10 finishes, including three in 2015. She had never come through under pressure as she did against Masson, who would have secured a Cup-retaining half-point for Europe had Gerina missed that par putt on the 18th hole at St. Leon-Rot Golf Club. When she sank the putt, U.S. dreams of a record comeback remained alive and were fulfilled when Angela Stanford and Paula Creamer won their matches.
The day after the Solheim Cup, Martin flew to Ohio to continue his season. Gerina returned to their home in Fort Worth. That evening, alone, she watched a DVR broadcast of the previous day's action. She saw her teammates rise to the occasion, Cristie Kerr and Michelle Wie and others winning big. And then she saw herself -- everyone counting on her -- come through.
"I was sitting in my living room crying like a little girl," she said. "I can't really believe that I did that in such a pressure-packed environment. Just thinking about it, I can feel it in my stomach. You watch athletes who work so hard and have success, it is satisfying. It was super cool it was me. I wasn't watching someone else."
When Wie had a successful Solheim Cup in 2009, she went on to win her first LPGA tournament later that fall. Gerina seems poised for a similar path. Putting has been the weak link for Gerina, a powerful player whose self-belief hasn't been as strong as her ballstriking. Lewis snapped out of a Solheim slump with Piller by her side. "I just think she's a really good player and she doesn't quite know it," Lewis told reporters in Germany.
Gerina was heartened by that comment. She has been trying to figure out the missing link. Earlier this season, she had a eureka moment during a conversation with the Chinese star Shanshan Feng.
"She told me, 'You're going to win,' " Gerina said. "Shanshan said you don't have to be perfect. I think that soaked in. I don't think there is such a thing as perfect golf. We're not robots. I watched Jordan Spieth win the John Deere this year and he hit some very errant tee shots. You just have to minimize the damage and kind of believe you have what it takes."
Husband and wife have contrasting abilities, each possessing talents the other lacks. While Gerina is far down in the putting stats on the LPGA, Martin has one of the best short games on the Web.com Tour.
"We're totally different as golfers," Martin said. "She hits it long and straight -- doesn't hit many bad shots and has an extremely natural ability to deliver the club on the ball. My game is a little more squirrelly at times. I don't hit it very long and not very straight. But when I putt well, I make everything."
They converge on their approach to handling the ups and downs of their careers.
"If I call him at a tournament and ask how he is, I'm not asking for a score," Gerina said. "I don't care if he shot 85 or 62. Did he have fun? How is he doing as a person? It's the same way for him. He does a phenomenal job making me know he's proud of me no matter what I shoot. His love is not dependent on that. We play a lot of golf, and it takes up a lot of our time and energy, but there is more to life than golf."
Not that there aren't tough junctures. Bad days at their offices are visible for all to see. Martin, who has won five tournaments in his Web.com Tour career, played on the PGA Tour in 2011 but had a lousy season, missing the cut in 16 of 23 appearances.
"We approach it well, but just because we have a faith and feel like golf isn't the end of the world, there are still difficult times," Martin said. "When you're playing great golf, you try to relish those moments. But it's not so much if you're going to play bad, but when. It's part of the game. We have a lot of joy in our lives, but there are days when it's tough and you roll up your sleeves and try to power through it."
Martin's customarily good putting has cooled off lately, contributing to his mini-slump. "My putting has been poor," he said after a short workweek in Ohio. "It's under construction."
Although neither gets to cheer the other in person often because of their schedules, it means a lot when it happens. "It's way better when she's here than when she's not," Martin said. "When she's with me, it's 10 times better."
Gerina will be with Martin as he competes in this week's Web.com Tour Championship in Florida, trying to end his season on a high note. Her season will continue next week in Asia at the Sime Darby LPGA in Kuala Lumpur. She plans to play twice overseas, then will be able to be with her husband as he begins the wraparound 2015-16 PGA Tour season before she completes the LPGA campaign in November.
"I don't worry too much about his game," Gerina said. "He had a rough couple of years, but I never had any doubts about what he was going to do. His mental game is phenomenal. I know how much it means to him and how he has worked his butt off to get back on the PGA Tour. It's so rewarding to see him accomplish that."
Martin will be back competing at the highest level, just like Gerina.
"If you're a golfer, you want to be on the PGA Tour, plain and simple," he said. "To be back out there is certainly satisfying. Hopefully I can do something with it this time. I feel my game is better now, but you don't know until you get there. There are a lot of reasons for optimism."
One of them just might be a stroke he didn't even make.