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Martin hopes for feel-good amateur story

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Ben Martin has to be the only amateur in the country featured on a billboard.

The outdoor advertisement is in Martin’s hometown of Greenwood, S.C., which is a little more than an hour from Augusta. Martin, a Clemson senior, is here as the U.S. Amateur runner-up, playing the role of the All-American local boy competing against the world’s best.

Consider these connections between Martin and the Masters:

• Martin’s father, Jim, first attended the Masters in 1967, when Ben Hogan shot a third-round 66 at age 54 to finish 10th. Ben Martin first attended the Masters in 1995, and has come to Augusta almost every year since.

• Jim Martin has a photo of Ben and his brother, Matt, with Gary Player at the 1999 Masters, when Ben was 11 and Matt was 8. Player signed the photo earlier this week, writing ‘Well done’ after he learned that one of the boys in the photo was in this year’s Masters field. Matt, a freshman engineering major at Clemson, caddied for his older brother in the Par 3 Contest.

• Jim Martin was a manager of the Greenwood High School football team. Greenwood, Ben’s alma mater, was coached from 1943-81 by J.W. “Pinky” Babb, who retired as the second-winningest high school football coach in the country (336 wins). Jim Martin is organizing a reunion for Babb’s former players. The second-leading rusher and points scorer during Babb’s tenure?

Former Augusta National chairman William ‘Hootie’ Johnson. Johnson was chairman for eight years, ending in ’06.

• Ben Martin is using an Augusta National caddie, Benji Thompson, for the tournament. Martin played junior golf against Thompson’s younger brother.

If Martin makes the cut, he’d be one of those feel-good stories that the amateurs often provide here.

He’s no stranger to the big stage, though. Martin qualified for last year’s U.S. Open at Bethpage, and at 2 under through 11 holes, held the lead for about 90 minutes early in the first round.

“Big-time stages make it easy to focus and dial in on a target,” Ben Martin said.

He ended up missing the cut but gained invaluable experience. “(A major) is just so different for a college kid that’s used to playing in front of five people,” Jim Martin said.

Ben Martin, No. 52 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, also is exempt for this year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach because of his U.S. Amateur finish. Martin, who earned his bachelor’s in financial management in December, will turn pro after that.

Martin, the only active collegian in the field, comes into the Masters on the heels of his first college victory. He won the Furman Invitational on March 21.

He knows his way around Augusta National, having played 11 practice rounds before this week. Martin earned his bachelor’s in financial management in December and has been taking mostly online classes. Clemson is only about 2 1/2 hours from Augusta.

Martin is playing the first two rounds with Ben Crenshaw and Steve Flesch. Flesch has finished in the top 10 each of the past two Masters. Crenshaw is known as one of the best playing partners for first-timers because of the lengths he goes to make them feel comfortable.

“He was one of the guys I was hoping to play with,” Ben Martin said.

It’s just another thing that’s gone right for him this week.

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