Ian Martin was a damn good golfer coming out of high school, and he went to the University of Michigan hoping for a chance to walk on their varsity golf team.
Martin, whose parents have pictures and video of him swinging plastic and cut-down golf clubs from when he was 2, had been introduced to the game by his dad. He was All-State in Michigan and was hoping to earn a scholarship to play collegiate golf. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to be a walk-on, so Martin looked for other ways to scratch his itch for competitive golf while staying at one of the nation's best universities.
He found club golf, which has proliferated throughout the US as a club for golfers who aren't quite able to compete on a varsity level. Some schools sanction the club golf teams on an official basis; others aren't recognized and receive little or no support from their schools. The National Collegiate Club Golf Association, under the banner of NextGenGolf, organizes more than 120 competitive weekend college golf tournaments through the year, including regional and national tournaments in both the fall and spring semesters. Since NextGenGolf and the NCCGA came together in 2013, more than 100 new club golf programs have been formed and more than 10,000 student golfers have been served. For students transitioning into the real world, NextGenGolf has its City Tour, which offers team-based competitive tournaments for younger players in their 20s and 30s at affordable prices.
However, Martin couldn't just walk on the Michigan club golf team. He had to tryout. As Martin recalls, he played well enough to get a callback, and then it all went wrong.
"Unfortunately, the night before callbacks I was up all night night throwing up and emailed the president that I wasn't going to be able to make it to the course the next day," Martin said. "I was told that it wasn't a good enough excuse. Apparently there was a history of people partying too hard the night before callbacks/tournaments, so despite being genuinely sick, I was not given another opportunity to join the club team my freshman year."
Not being able to play any kind of team-based competitive golf sent Martin in a new direction. He transferred to a small NAIA school in Michigan for a year, hoping performing well there might land him an opportunity to transfer back into an NCAA Division I or Division II school. Despite leading Siena Heights University to its first WHAC conference championship as conference player of the year, Martin couldn't catch a hook at a larger school. He went back to Big Blue so he could at least be with his friends.
Just before his junior year, Martin played with the club team president and landed a spot on the team.
"He is actually one of my best friends now and could not believe that he cut me my freshman year," Martin said.
So, for the last five semesters, including this fall, Martin has played club golf. It's not quite as formal as a varsity team, but the club corresponds over GroupMe with each other about when they'll play, using the fantastic Michigan campus course to have qualifying rounds and events. Those qualifiers determine the players who represent the club in a pair of regional tournaments each semester against other club golf teams in Michigan. The pair of events determines which players and teams move on to nationals.
In every semester Martin has played club golf, he's made it to nationals. He's played at Walt Disney World, in Las Vegas and, most recently, at fall nationals in Myrtle Beach at the Barefoot Resort in November.
The two practice days at Barefoot were windy, but Martin drew an 8 a.m. tee time on the Love Course at Barefoot. He pounced, shooting a 5-under 67 to take a two-stroke lead after Day 1.
"We were first off, so the wind was down and we had fresh greens to putt on," Martin said.
Key to the round was a run of six consecutive birdies to close it out and give him a cushion heading to the Dye Course the next day.
"I had been playing well the entire round up until that six-birdie stretch. My only (dropped shots) were a result of three-putts," he said. "After 3 three-putts, I was fairly angry with myself and basically said 'I have had enough of this.' My teammate Phil was playing the best competitive round of his life (ended up shooting a bogey-free 69) so after I made a couple birdies in a row we continued to motivate each other to the finish."
— Club Golf at Michigan (@clubgolfmich) November 18, 2018
With his competitive experience, Martin didn't feel particularly on edge going into Day 2. Having played a good practice round at the Dye, Martin hoped to put another round in the 60s on the board and close out the title against the 225-player field. Only 11 players were within a half-dozen of him through the first round, but anything could happen in the final round of a 36-hole shootout.
Martin struggled early in Round 2. After an opening par, he bogeyed three holes in a row, and he was 4 over through seven holes.
"The putter was a definitely my biggest issue," he said. "Even during my first round, I only made one putt outside of 10 feet and missed plenty of short putts."
Martin didn't panice. He birdied the short par-5 eighth, and he found four more circles on the card into the house against two bogeys. He arrived to 18 thinking birdie to claw all the way back.
"I got kind of greedy and really wanted to make birdie to get back to even," he said. "I hit an aggressive driver into the water (a really stupid shot) and had to re-tee. After doing that, I told myself I needed to make 5 in order to win or at least get in a playoff. Pulled 3-wood and then nearly holed my 9-iron and tapped in for 5. I knew after that I had either won or would be going to a playoff."
It turned out, the 3-under 131 total was good enough for a two-stroke win. His University of Michigan team finished T-15 out of 27 teams in the field. While they weren't able to defend their national title from when Barefoot last hosted nationals (the Golf Academy of America team from Myrtle Beach won by 10 shots), it was a great week.
Martin had not only fulfilled a goal of his, but it also was a great sendoff from club golf. He had learned the week before nationals he would be able to join the varsity team for his final semester.
"I kind of put a lot of additional pressure on myself to preform well, and I was glad to see that I could rise to the occasion," he said. "For the team, I thought that it showed the toughness of the northern schools who are unable to play golf all year round (four of the top five individual players, including teammate Phil Lodzinski, were from Michigan/Minnesota). We had basically been unable to play or practice the 2-3 weeks prior to nationals."
Martin would love to see the Ann Arbor administration recognize Michigan's club golf team.
Awesome weekend at Barefoot Resort with this team. Courses were phenomenal and so was the weather! Shoutout to the @NCCGA for putting on another fantastic event. See you in the spring! pic.twitter.com/lZq42s4lZN
— Club Golf at Michigan (@clubgolfmich) November 18, 2018
"We currently receive very little funding from the university and have supposedly been the next club team on the wait-list for years," he said. "There is a lot of talent at the University of Michigan, and I think the cost to participate in club golf deters some people from being more involved. Club golf has been such a positive experience for me. I have made a lot of lifelong friends, and I would love to see other people have a similar experience to mine."
After graduating, Martin has aims of chasing life as a pro golfer, but he wants more golfers to have the chance to experience what club golf and the NCCGA have created.
"The NCCGA does an outstanding job providing us with an opportunity to continue to play golf throughout college," he said. "It is a perfect mixture of competitive and social, which is why the atmosphere at the events are so great."