April 17, 2014

McCombs: Former Clemson star Martin hopes to turn around his season here

"I hit it long and left, and apparently it hit the cart path and then bounced into a house."

"I hit it long and left, and apparently it hit the cart path and then bounced into a house."

Ben Martin's description of his tee shot on the par-3 14th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links isn't typically what you hear when someone's happy with their round of golf.

But for Martin, Thursday was a step forward.

"I'll definitely take the positives over the negatives any day that I play well," Martin said after his 2-under 69 in the first round of the RBC Heritage. "This is a course you've got to think your way around. ... You've got to take what this course gives you sometimes if you hit it in the wrong spots. But I played solid overall and managed my game well and that's what you have to do around here."

The Greenwood native and former Clemson star has found the going rough in his return to the PGA Tour.

After turning pro in 2010, the 2009 U.S. Amateur runner-up finished second at qualifying school and spent the 2011 season on the PGA Tour, making the cut in 12 of his 25 tournaments.

But it was during the next two seasons on the Tour that Martin came into his own, winning two events last year on the way to a second-place finish on the money list and his PGA Tour card.

It's been a disappointment from there.

Martin has struggled mightily, missing the cut nine times in 13 events. A third-place finish in Puerto Rico seemed to be a bright spot, ending a run of three straight cuts. But Martin missed four straight cuts afterward.

"I missed a couple cuts by a shot," Martin said. "I don't think I'm that far off."

Through 13 holes on Thursday, Martin wasn't far off at all. He teed off on No. 14 tied for the lead with Matt Kuchar at 4 under.

And then it happened. The wind changed just as Martin hit the ball and his shot was wayward.

"That's a tough hole," Martin said with a smile on his face. "You've got to hit a good shot in there. But I didn't. And that's the way it goes."

And despite riding a streak of seven missed cuts in eight tournaments, Martin stayed the course, bouncing back for a birdie on the par-5 15th, one of the tougher holes at Harbour Town. He made par the rest of the way and sits in the logjam for fifth. In contention.

Martin didn't let the potential disaster on 14 sink his round or his chance at the weekend. Maybe this is the week he finds his way out of the funk that has enveloped his 2014 season.

Off the course during the Masters last week, Martin had time to reflect on his season and decided to get back to the basics, focusing more on the process and less on results.

"I'm really trying to get back to focusing on what I do well and making some good swings," Martin said. "The find-it-and-go-hit-it-again kind of attitude, not really worrying about the results as much as the process."

And he chose the perfect place for the change. Your can't think about scoring at Harbour Town. It requires focus on the next shot. Always.

"I think it demands it. You've got to pick good targets out here," Martin said. "I think it's actually kind of easier. Everything is so tight, it really makes you bear down and pick good targets on the tee."

Before the season, Martin and his family circled this event on the calendar and rented a house at the beach. Turns out, it was a good choice.

Ironically, one of the PGA Tour's most unforgiving courses might be just the respite Martin needed from the pressure-packed PGA Tour.

"I would say I expected to play a little better than I have this year," Martin said. "But I think I'm getting better, so I'm looking forward to the rest of the season."

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