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Perseverance paid off for ex-UCLA golfer Mo Martin at British Open

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Former UCLA golf standout Mo Martin has steadied her game on LPGA Tour
Mo Martin still enjoying breakthrough victory in the women's British Open

To judge Mo Martin only by her stature (she's 5 feet 2 before she puts on her golf shoes) or by her career victories (one, her women's British Open triumph this month) would be to completely miss why the former UCLA standout is so heartily worth appreciating and applauding.

In a sport that glorifies sensationally long-hitting teenagers, the 31-year-old Martin is steadfast and persistent. Martin, who grew up in Altadena, spent six seasons on the "minor league" Symetra Tour and was 29 during her LPGA debut season. Though known for her tour-leading driving accuracy of 86%, her average driving distance of 233 yards is about 40 short of the leaders' prodigious numbers.

Until her performance two weekends ago at Royal Birkdale — where her gutsy three-wood shot hit the pin to set up an eagle on the par-five final hole that allowed her to regain the lead — Martin's best LPGA finish was a tie for third at Carlsbad in 2013. She was the only player to finish below par at the British Open, at one-under 287, through often-treacherous winds. Martin said she had been hitting her three-wood well all week, and that last-round shot has become the stuff of golf legend.

"I think my head's been spinning for a week and it definitely hasn't settled in yet," said Martin, who last weekend tied for seventh at the Marathon Classic in Sylvania, Ohio, five strokes behind 17-year-old Lydia Ko.

At some point the magnitude of her triumph will register for Martin, who deserves to enjoy it.

Other players might have given up after a few years of the nomadic, penny-watching existence of the Symetra Tour. Quitting isn't an option for Martin, whose given name is Melissa but who was nicknamed Mo as a child for the determination that ultimately led her to that British Open victory.

"Somebody asked me recently if that validated what I had done, and for me, it doesn't," she said Tuesday while visiting family in Pasadena during a break from the LPGA Tour.

"I've been healthy enough and I've had successes along the way that have propelled me forward, and for me the reward is day to day. I get to do something I love and I get to share what I do with my family and friends and fans — pretty much the world. I'm very blessed to be doing what I'm doing, and I've always felt that way. For me, that's the ultimate reward.

"This is very, very sweet and large icing on the cake. It's literally a dream come true, but I think along the way I've always had the reward."

It has never been easy for Martin, who was a walk-on with the UCLA golf team and was part of the school's NCAA championship run as a junior in 2004. "I wasn't really groomed to do this. I started at a very young age but when I started playing professionally I had no idea what I was doing," she said.

"I didn't really have a mentor. I forgot to register for the first tournament. I didn't have an agent. I didn't have a coach. I didn't have these sponsors willing to help me out. I made my own way, and that's clearly going to take more time."

Patience was more than a virtue for her. It was a necessity. Not until 2011, when she recorded 11 top-10 finishes on the Symetra Tour, did she qualify to graduate to the LPGA Tour.

"A lot of people do all the right things and they're talented and it just never works out. I guess that's fate," she said. "Sometimes it's a very, very difficult thing to pursue."

She credits her family — notably her grandfather, Lincoln Martin, who died in March at age 102 — for sustaining her. Thanks to him, her mother, Linda, and aunt Mary Cadieux, who hands out "Go Mo" buttons to the gallery, she always met the criteria she had set to determine if she would continue playing.

"If I wake up happy in the morning and enjoy what I'm doing, if I'm able to contribute to the game still, and if I'm able to pay my own bills, then I'm going to keep playing golf," she said. "When I came up with those three things and also I saw that each year I was improving, that propelled me forward."

She wears a necklace bearing the letter "L" for her grandfather and plans to join her family in scattering his ashes in the Sierras. He kissed the necklace for her last Christmas, she said, "So he'll always be with me."

He's there in her perseverance and insistence she won't be affected by fame in the fast lane — other than accepting the Dodgers' offer to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a game next week.

"In terms of my goals and my aspirations and all the details of my life, I'm hoping this doesn't change that," she said.

Not likely. Steady and sure has always been the right speed for her.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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