A distinct foursome emerged from Gulfport (Miss.) High School in the late 1950s. All these years later, Walt Martin will tell you that he’s the least notable member of that group. Then you get to know Martin, and you realize that it’s a statement born of pure modesty.
Martin, a 73-year-old Navy veteran, spent the better part of his career hauling golf clubs from U.S. coast to coast, to Hawaii and, as a young man, to Southeast Asia and back. That dedication was born in Gulfport.
Martin began in the game by taking a short iron down to the beach and knocking around a few golf balls in the sand. He graduated to play with his father after church on Sunday afternoons at Great Southern Golf Club. The club was run by the father of classmate Robbie Webb, who taught many of his son’s friends how to play the game. The rest they learned from Johnny Revolta, a touring pro who would visit Gulfport in the winters to keep his game sharp.
With the twosome of Martin and Webb in place, enter Mary Mills, who would go on to a stellar amateur career (she won eight consecutive Mississippi Women’s Amateur Championships starting in 1954) before a short LPGA career. Mills won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1963 and the LPGA Championship in ’64 and ’73, but her career was cut short because of injury. She had nine LPGA victories.
“Mary absolutely loved golf,” Martin said. “She didn’t care whether she had a date. She didn’t care anything about boys. Her whole life was golf.”
To complete the foursome, Gulfport had Wheeler Farish, the No. 1 player who eventually went on to play for Stanford before maintaining a career as an airline pilot. The Farishes also had a home on the third hole at Pebble Beach, and golf was a way of life.
“Our little golf team there in Gulfport was pretty famous, with me being the least famous of them all,” Martin said. “We were just sort of self-taught.”
Martin left Gulfport and the golf team in 1957 at age 16, a year early, to enroll at Marion (Ala.) Military Institute, a military college. It was the start of a journey that would take him all over the world. He won an appointment to the Naval Academy the next year, and played varsity golf and squash rackets for the Midshipmen. His squash-racket team won a national championship in 1961. Still, he kept his sticks close.
Martin spent his ensuing naval career mostly on destroyers. After stints in Mayport, Fla., and Norfolk, Va., he was deployed to Vietnam from Norfolk in 1966, then toured Southeast Asia, India and the Mediterranean.
“I had taken my clubs on every ship I was ever on,” Martin said. “I played a lot of different places around the world.”
After seven years at sea, Martin did his first shore duty in 1969 in Monterey, Calif., at the Naval Postgraduate School. It allowed him time to work on his game, win a club championship and, most memorably, secure an invitation to the 1970 Bing Crosby Pro-Am. Martin was paired with Billy Maxwell. Despite a final-round 62, they missed the cut by two strokes.
The Bing Crosby remains the only professional golf event – PGA Tour or otherwise – in which Martin has played (and place a small asterisk by that because Martin played the Crosby as an amateur).
The early 1970s held a move to Washington, another tour in Vietnam, a few more trips to sea and then an appointment to chief of staff for a destroyer squadron in Mayport, Fla. Stints in Hawaii and Southern California followed, and Martin’s naval career ended as commanding officer of the Naval ROTC at the University of San Diego and San Diego State. In 1991, he retired at the age of 51 and once again became serious about golf.
Martin’s re-entry into the game coincided with a period of his life when he played the role of “house husband” for wife Kathy.
“I would take care of our youngest son (Chris) and then practice golf around that,” he said. “I was doing the PTA part and the soccer part and the baseball part and all that.”
As Kathy followed a career as a naval nurse that continued to trend upward, Walt turned professional in 1993, first playing the Golden State Tour in California, then the Sunbelt Senior Tour when they moved to Charleston, S.C. The golf ebbed as Chris finished high school. That eventually led Martin to seek renewed amateur status. He applied in 2001, and was reinstated in early 2004.
“I saw the writing on the wall,” Martin said. “I wasn’t that great a putter, though I was a good ballstriker, and I just said, well, with my wife’s career flourishing and our son going through the trials and tribulations of sports in high school and grades and all that, I just sort of backed off.”
Martin still aims for the so-far elusive U.S. Senior Amateur and U.S. Senior Open berths, but he spends most of his time traveling the country on the senior amateur tour. He finished 2013 as No. 2 in Golfweek’s rankings for super seniors.
“I think the thing that I’m proudest of is I’ve played a lot of tournaments,” Martin said. “I’ve met a lot of nice people.”
He’s logged a lot of miles, too. Through it all, there was always golf.