After moving from South Korea to Minnesota when he was four years old, Justin Martinson fell in love with hockey and dreamed about someday playing in the NHL.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie, and the speed and intensity of hockey drew me in,” said Martinson, who attended Kennett High in Kennett Square, PA.
Somewhere down the road, however, he traded in his hockey stick for golf clubs. Golf is now his passion—and he has the low scores to prove it.
“Golf doesn’t give you anything. It’s kind of like life,” said Martinson, a blossoming pro who hopes to one day compete on the PGA Tour. “You have to work for it. You can do everything right…and things still don’t always work out. It’s very humbling.”
Martinson moved to Avondale, PA, in Chester County, located about 45 miles outside of Philadelphia, when he was 16. He had success in junior golf tournaments before starring at the University of Delaware, where he set numerous school records. Martinson also won Philadelphia and Delaware Amateur championships in 2010, and captured Delaware Open titles in 2009 and 2011.
Now 26, he has won four professional mini-tours since turning pro in 2011.
The 5-foot-8, 145-pound Martinson recently finished runner-up in “Big Break,” a reality golf show on Golf Channel that was held in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. The first-place finisher, Richy Werenski, received an exemption to tee it up with PGA Tour professionals July 16-19 at the inaugural Barbasol championship in Opelika, AL.
Werenski, 23, also won more than $80,000 in cash and prizes.
Martinson, who seized the lead with four straight birdies on holes 8 through 11 before Werenski made a late rally, took home nearly $11,000 in cash and prizes. Twelve golfers were in the field.
“It was a great learning experience,” Martinson said of the pressure-packed competition. “Somehow, I think doors will open from this.”
The championship was shown in April.
“I haven’t noticed any difference except for the exposure and recognition,” said Martinson, who now resides in quaint Savannah, Ga. “Everywhere I go, someone recognizes me. The last time I was in Philly, three people at the airport stopped me and said, ‘Great job on the show.’ I never really expected that. It’s definitely cool.”
Pro golfers basically compete in three tours. First is the PGA, which is far and away the biggest money-making place to play. That’s followed by the Web.com Tour (with purses generally between $550,000 and $1 million), and then the much less lucrative SwingThought Tour, whose total purse is usually around $140,000.
Martinson has been playing in the latter tour, with the hopes of one day competing with the Jordan Spieths, Rory McIlroys and Phil Mickelsons of the world.
“It’s like a minor-league tour in a way,” he said of his current playing status.
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A year ago, Martinson said he won about $55,000 in prize money. That sounds like a pretty good chunk of change for someone who is single and 26—until you realize how much Martinson paid in out-of-pocket expenses.
He estimated it costs about $50,000 to stay on the tour. “I paid $30,000 in entry fees last year, and that’s before travel expenses and food, and that comes to another $20,000,” he said.
Martinson said his next step is to earn status on the Web.com Tour. There will be a series of qualifying tournaments from October to December. The top 25 in the Web.com Tour advance to the PGA Tour next season.
The Delaware grad thrives on strong iron play and clutch putting, and he had an average tourney score of 70.3 last year, so he is optimistic about his future.
“I feel like I’m progressing and getting better each year,” he said.
Asked if he had a set a time frame for when he would walk away from the sport if he hasn’t reached the PGA Tour, Martinson said: “When you set a timetable, I think you’re setting yourself up for failure. I’m just going to keep on going.”
In the “Big Break” competition, Martinson made one of his four straight birdies in a driving rainstorm.
“Before I putted, I said to the producer, ‘I know why you are making me do this. This is so made for TV,’” he said.
Martinson then dropped a six-foot putt in a torrential downpour.
“Water was accumulating on the green, and the ball had a tail on it when it was rolling,” Martinson said with a laugh.
Martinson said he doesn’t try to copy anyone’s game, though some golfers have told him his putting style—hunched over and leaning back—reminds them of the way the great Jack Nicklaus putted.
“I tell them, ‘I’ve been called worse,’” a smiling Martinson said.
He still enjoys playing occasional pick-up hockey games when he gets back to the Philadelphia area, and he packed his skates when he moved to Georgia last October. One problem: “No rinks,” he said.
Golf is now his true No. 1 sport.
“I love it because I’m my own boss out there,” he said. “I’m the only person playing, and if things don’t go like they should, it’s no one else’s fault. It’s my responsibility, and that’s kind of nice.”