At 5’2,’’ the petite professional golfer Mo Martin doesn’t look like a grinder.

But during her four years at all-girls’ Alverno High School in Sierra Madre, which didn’t have a golf team back then — and still doesn’t — the Altadena resident honed her short game, long irons and laser-straight drives into a driveway net at home and at local driving ranges. Her father served as her first coach.

Graduating in 2000 with a stellar GPA, Martin was a “walk-on” at UCLA with no athletic scholarship, unheard of in junior golf circles, especially since she had won the Junior World Japan Cup, one of the most prestigious youth tournaments of its day.

 Martin helped the Bruins win a national title in 2004 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology a year later. After turning pro, however, she toiled for six years in the minor league of the Futures Tour, which today is called the Symetra Tour, collecting three victories.

And for more than two years after finally making it to the LPGA in 2012, she went winless. 

Until, that is, the Women’s British Open two weeks ago. On the 72nd and final hole at the Royal Birkdale course in Southport, England, the 31-year-old banged a three-wood fairway shot off the flagstick, nearly making a rare double eagle. Then she walked onto the green and coolly sank a six-footer for an eagle, just the third of her career on the LPGA. An hour later, she was declared the Women’s Open winner by a single stroke. 

NBC’s Golf Channel called it a “Cinderella story.” Before her first LPGA victory, she was ranked number 99 in the Rodex Women’s World Rankings. In 63 previous starts on tour, she never even led after any round. 

Hooked on trophy

Martin was four when her brother came home with a glistening golf trophy that caught her eye. And the hook was planted. “I just really wanted a trophy,” she recalled in a phone interview after the Open victory with Alverno’s alumnae director. “So I started playing golf and fell in love with the game. It really came in pieces how it happened.”

And by 1996, when she entered high school, she had the Junior World Japan Cup on her shelf. “Alverno was very supportive, and the school’s nurturing environment helped me to catch up — and not only catch up, but excel,” she said. “I was allowed time to practice and to compete, which was really helpful to me. After Alverno, I went onto UCLA and was able to join the golf program there and compete academically, which opened the door to becoming a professional and having the career I have today.” 

But Martin struggled, not only with mastering pitching and putting. 

The adolescent and teenager had to deal with societal pressures in the not-so-tolerant 1980s and ‘90s, before Lorena Ochoa and Michelle Wie made women golfers international role models. “I got a lot of comments growing up, especially during high school, about being a female golfer,” she reported. “There would be individuals who wouldn’t want to play with a female. I think there is still a stigma attached to female golfers, but we are gaining a lot of momentum on the professional levels.”

Linda Reffner, former athletic director and assistant principal at Alverno, told The Tidings that she took an interest in Martin early on at the private high school. And while she never actually coached her, at one CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) golf tournament, the administrator found herself carrying the student’s bag for a few holes, subbing as a required non-relative coach.  

“On the second day, she said to me, ‘You know, Ms. Reffner, the other coaches are carrying their players’ bags.’ And I carried it until, I think it was maybe the eighth hole, this little par three, but it was like straight up hill. And then I decided the ‘youngins’ should carry the bag instead of me,” she said, laughing. “Mo didn’t win that tournament, but I was really impressed by her total focus and determination.”

Both of those qualities helped Martin weather her lengthy tenure on the Futures/Symetra tour, according to the former Catholic school educator. 

“Most people, if they don’t make the LPGA in the first couple years, they give up,” she said. “And she just really has stuck to it. Now to get her first win, and for it to be the British Open, it’s just huge. The LPGA doesn’t play those kind of links-type courses too often. And she’s a short hitter. But what’s in her favor is she’s accurate. She doesn’t miss many fairways. And she’s tiny. So it’s all in technique.” 

After a moment, Reffner, who is an avid golfer herself, added, “She deserves every bit of that win.”

‘Big win’

Julia Fanara, Alverno’s current head of school, readily agrees. She taught Martin English and remembers her being an excellent student who took several AP classes. “She was one of the nicest kids on campus,” she said. “She had a big heart. She was so sweet always to the underclassmen. I mean, everybody knew she was all about golf. But she was a serious student, too.”

On her British Open win, Fanara said, “Oh, my God, we were so excited. We were following her on Facebook, and everybody was writing back and forth about how she was doing. And we’ve been kind of following her career, you know, from UCLA and throughout to see she was coming up through the ranks. 

“And we’ve been waiting for something to happen,” she said. “This was, like, a big surprise. It was great. This is, like, a big win.”