Tony Martinez and Those who Inspired Him to a Special PGA Professional career
By Bob Denney, PGA Historian Emeritus
PGA Board of Director, Tony Martinez on the first hole during the final round of the 102nd PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park on August 9, 2020 in San Francisco, California.Photo by Darren Carroll/PGA of America
Editor's Note: The PGA of America celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month by highlighting Latinx PGA Professionals making an impact in the game and business of golf. We recognize that as we look to grow the game and business of golf inclusively, learning more about each other's backgrounds and cultures will only help us develop along that path.
Tony Martinez was 13 years old, but he remembers the moment as if it were yesterday. It was a morning in 1981 when he met Homero Blancas, who led a junior golf clinic at Randolph Park, a municipal course in Tucson, Arizona.
Blancas—nicknamed “Mr. 55” for a magical 18-hole round shot 58 years ago this year as an amateur—didn’t know until much later just how big an impact he made that day in jump-starting Martinez’s career.
Today, the 52-year-old Martinez is the PGA Director of Golf at Keeton Park Golf Course in Dallas, Texas, as well as a member of the PGA of America Board of Directors, an independent contractor for the City of Dallas, and founder of Tony Martinez Golf Management. And it all started that day.
“When I saw Homero, I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a golf professional at a municipal course,” said Martinez. “He was so welcoming and so generous with his time. That impacts someone that you don’t know.”
There was no looking back after that day with Blancas.
“We talk about the business and how difficult it is -- the work and the hours,” Martinez said. “I never really felt it that way. I’ve never not wanted to be in that environment where joy is happening.”
Martinez’s “on-ramp” to the golf industry moved from the inspiring Blancas to PGA Professional Terry Wilks, whom he met in 1983 at Fred Enke Municipal Golf Course in Tucson. Wilks became Martinez’s mentor, hiring him to pick up balls on the range and giving him responsibilities in the golf shop at age 15.
“Tony was a smart kid, a self-starter,” said Wilks. “He was the kind of kid you put him in the right direction, he would work really hard and it wasn’t about the hours he worked. He just enjoyed doing what he was doing.
“He was naturally talented, good with people. I’m really proud of what he has done with the PGA. He makes a difference for our Association. He’s a pretty proud PGA Member and I’m pretty proud of him to have him where he’s at.”
Martinez graduated from Grand Canyon University with a degree in communications in 1991, and became an assistant professional at PineTop Country Club in Northern Arizona before returning to Fred Enke Municipal, where he went from assistant professional to interim head professional in less than two years.
He was elected to PGA Membership in 1994, and was promptly recruited to help create the Signature Golf Academy at the Tournaments Players Club Starr Pass, also in Tucson.
Martinez paused to reflect upon his own opportunities as a Latino golfer and what it means for the Mexican-American community. Currently, there are 500 Hispanic men and women PGA Members and Associates. Of that group, there are 340 male and 22 female PGA Members.
“It’s like you look at yourself and feel you’re healthy, but know that you can be healthier,” said Martinez. “I see progress and I am inspired by that. There is a long way to go, but we are on the verge of some pretty good crops.”
When Martinez reports to work, he finds the greetings genuine. “The Latinos know, and I can feel a sense of pride,” he said. “They refer to me by name and often my last name. The experience and my feelings about it are hard to articulate.”
For Latinos to advance through golf, Martinez said, is partly “generational.”
“My mom retired before she ever hit a golf ball,” he said. “It would take more time if a Latino was exposed to the game and there was no one else in the family pursuing it. We had a junior golf program that was successful; the model worked. I was in the unusual situation of taking up the game of golf at the same time as my dad.
“There were plenty of days when I said, ‘Dad, it’s too hot to go hit balls. We have to pick them all up all over the place,’ ” said Tony. “But, that kept me consistently engaged in the game.”
Henry Martinez was a food services broker and his wife, Lillian, a homemaker who was later employed by the Tucson school system.
Tony, a multi-sport athlete as a youngster, won the first golf tournament he entered at age 8, at Rolling Hills Golf Course in Tucson. He became a successful junior golfer, and after a standout career in high school earned a scholarship to Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. He was a member of a college team (1987-91) that featured eight future PGA Professionals.
Today, Tony and wife Gretchen, who also plays golf, are parents to a daughter, Emma, who played high school golf; oldest son, Ty, a PGA Associate at Keeton Park; and youngest son, Calvin, a member of the Mexican Tour.
Martinez wasn’t the only youngster inspired by Blancas. Willie Kane was a University of Arizona standout and Tucson professional who worked for Blancas. But he died of heart attack at age 43 after completing the 2006 Walt Disney World Half Marathon in Orlando, Florida.
“Willie was the Randolph Park ‘Kid,’” said Martinez. “Willie stayed in the parks system after I moved to Texas in 1997. I realized how similar we were and how precious life is. I was also active in triathlons.”
In 2010, Martinez wrote a letter to Blancas, explaining the impact that he had on him.
“I wrote it also on behalf of Willie, and things that he would have wanted to share with Homero,” said Martinez. “I know the impact that he had on Willie. It fed my soul and was a healing moment.”
Blancas, now 82, has no scorecard or trophy from his amazing round of 55, which won him the 1962 Premier Invitational in Longview, Texas. The reminders were destroyed in a fire at his parents’ home in the 1960s.
But, one connection to the past survived -- Martinez’s affection for a man who started it all for him in golf.
“I’m proud of that and I was always trying to set a good example,” said Blancas.
Martinez said opportunities for Latino golfers continue to grow.
“My family benefited as the product of a junior golf system in a community that had easy access and enthusiasm for the game. Being able to play at a place that had the Homero Blancases and the Terry Wilks inspire and instill the values of the game.”
Some things in life come full circle: Martinez had it happen with Rolling Hills Golf Course. The course where he won his first competitive event as an eight-year-old was struggling and the club president approached him for help.
In 2018, Martinez’s management company came to the rescue, and in the process developed “Generation Golf.” Rolling Hills now has a program geared to the next generation of golfers.
“That place is special,” said Martinez, “and a legacy continues.”