- Alistair Tait
Sometimes Life Just Gets In The Way
If you’d told me 20 years ago that Spain's Rafa Cabrera Bello would have more European Tour wins than countryman Pablo Martin, and a Ryder Cup appearance, at this stage of their careers, I’d have laughed at you.
Yet Cabrera Bello (above) has just won his fourth European Tour title, the Spanish Open, while three-time winner Martin is missing in action. Cabrera Bello defeated compatriot Adri Arnaus at the first hole of a sudden death playoff after the pair tied on 19-under 265 at Club de Campo Villa de Madrid to take home €233,900 for his first win since 2017.
“I came here in probably the worst shape I have been in in the last decade, and to walk out here with a win, it's very special,” Cabera Bello said.
"I've always dreamed about holding this trophy. This week I've trusted myself again; I found a way to believe in myself.”
Twenty years ago, Martin had loads of belief in himself. It was he who seemed destined to play in Ryder Cup teams, compete for majors, with wins in his home championship an almost foregone conclusion. One of the most successful coaches in American college golf said Martin was good enough then to play on the PGA Tour, and he was just 15 years old.
The year was 2001, the course was Ganton, the championship the Boys’ Amateur. Martin beat Cabrera Bello 3&2 in the final, equalling Mark Mouland’s record as youngest Boys Amateur winner at 15 years and 120 days. Legendary Oklahoma State coach Mike Holder had eyes for only one finalist. He wanted Martin to play for his Cowboys team, just as a slew of PGA Tour winners had/have done – Bob Tway, Scott Verplank, Bob May, Charles Howell III, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, to name a few.
Holder got his man, albeit he had to wait until the boy finished high School. Martin spent four years in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He was on the same team as Sweden’s Alex Noren, who played in the Ryder Cup two years after Cabrera Bello’s 2016 appearance.
Martin lived up to Holder’s hopes, winning the 2006 Haskins and Jack Nicklaus Awards as the number one player in college golf.
He didn’t take long to make his mark in the money game. Indeed, he wasn’t even a professional when he won the 2007 Portuguese Open, becoming the first amateur to win on the European Tour. He was streets ahead of Cabrera Bello, who didn’t win his first European Tour event until 2009.
After finishing college and turning pro, Martin won the 2010 and 2011 South African Opens.
Yet as Cabrera Bello grew in stature, winning the 2012 Dubai Desert Classic, making his Ryder Cup debut and triumphing in the 2017 Scottish Open, Martin lost his game.
The 2012 season was Martin’s last full year on the European Tour. He finished 164th on the money list, lost his card and has played just 30 tournaments since, with his last appearance, a missed cut, coming in 2017. In 2019 he didn’t make it through second stage of European Tour qualifying. He shot rounds of 81, 73 and retired.
Personal issues haven’t helped the affable Spaniard. Martin lost his father Gonzago to cancer in early 2010. He was just 58. Father and son were extremely close. They spent a lot of time together on and off the golf course.
I once interviewed Martin when he was going through a rough spell with his golf and it was hard to believe it was the same person who looked invincible at 15.
“I feel like when I get lost driving a car,” Martin said. “You know you make a wrong turn and should stop and ask someone where to go, but you drive and drive thinking you can get there and just get more lost.”
I also spoke to Holder, then Oklahoma State’s Athletic Director. He said:
“He’s one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen. He was a virtuoso at 15. He could probably have broken par left handed. He was ready to play on Tour then. I really believed he was going to be the next Seve He looked like he would win major championships, excel on the European and PGA Tours and be a force in the Ryder Cup.”
Martin now has other problems to deal with other than trying to coax a wee white ball into a small dark hole. His biggest challenge currently is going through a custody battle with his ex-wife in the Swedish courts to try to get access to their two children.
It just goes to show, once again, young talent doesn’t always reach its potential.
Sometimes life just gets in the way.
#JustSaying: “In other games you get another chance. In baseball you get three cracks at it; in tennis you only lose one point. But in golf the loss one shot has been responsible for the loss of heart.” Tommy Armour
Photograph by Getty Images courtesy of the European Tour.