By Ward Clayton
A boy on a bike met a man on a golf course six years ago. The chance encounter changed both of their lives, enough to earn recognition during the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship competition.
April 2010 was when Ricky Martin, a short in stature, long-haired 12-year-old, developed a fascination with cruising his Wescott Plantation Golf Club neighborhood by bike to unearth lost golf balls. From his family residence on the North Charleston, S.C., public golf course he searched the streams and woods and rolled toward the clubhouse, with an assortment of balls stored in the basket of his bike. As he rode past the ninth hole on this spring day, PGA Professional Perry Green, Wescott’s Director of Instruction, was conducting a ladies’ clinic. Martin stopped and approached.
“This young man rode up and asked us if we wanted to buy some golf balls,” said Green, a white-headed big, burly man with a kind soul. “Technically, I’m supposed to say that he shouldn’t be out here selling balls, to go on. But for some reason I asked, ‘What would you do with the money if I bought some balls?’ ”
“I would take the money, go to the pro shop and buy some balls to hit on the range,” Martin responded.
“Everybody in the group said a collective, ‘Awww,’ ” Green said, “but I don’t think we thought anything of it afterward. Little did I know.”
Martin’s first encounter with Green was astounding on its own. Martin was diagnosed autistic at age 3 and characteristically didn’t hang with others or make much eye contact with strangers. But just more than a month later, as Green was conducting a junior tournament, he saw Martin again, this time with his father, Jim, in tow to pay for a first golf lesson.
“I gave Ricky a couple pointers in an impromptu lesson, and he got a couple airborne,” Green said. “Then I looked back at his father, about 20 yards behind us, and he was balling, in tears. ‘Keep hitting balls Ricky,’ I said.
“I went to his father – I thought something terrible had happened – to see what was going on. He said, ‘You don’t understand. Because he’s autistic, accomplishing things has been difficult for Ricky. I couldn’t watch this success without getting emotional.’ ”
From there, Ricky Martin became a fixture around the golf course and range. He entered The First Tee program, where he excelled to become the first participant in Charleston to reach the Ace level. He learned to look people in the eye, shake their hands and took a liking to helping younger golfers with their games and assisting Green with his successful summer camps. He met an original goal of making the Fort Dorchester High School golf team. Jimmy Roberts interviewed him for a special on the Golf Channel. He made a hole-in-one and an eagle on a par 4. Last fall, he even beat PGA Tour player Russell Henley in a chipping contest during a First Tee fundraiser at nearby Kiawah Island, S.C. He received an invitation from Arnold Palmer to come to Orlando, Fla., and play the Bay Hill Club.
Then earlier this summer, he was honored as the All-Star Volunteer by the Carolinas PGA Section at a Drive, Chip and Putt qualifier at Wescott, where he has accumulated more than 10,000 volunteer hours.
“I’m excited about it because I wasn’t really expecting it; it was a surprise,” Martin said. “I like being out here all the time, helping others and working on my game.”
“Golf changed Ricky,” said Jim Martin, his father. “He took a notion to play golf, then The First Tee really got him going. It wasn’t anything I did, it was all Ricky.”
In June, he graduated from Fort Dorchester High and is taking classes at a Charleston community college. He wants to study computers and would like to learn a foreign language. Golf is still in the equation too.
“I could see Ricky in an area where he could help kids with golf,” said Green, who still chokes up at telling Ricky’s story. “The First Tee brought him out of the dark, so to speak. I would love to see him as a lead coach in The First Tee program. He has taught a lot of kids and me just by example. Heck, I could see him one day taking over my spot.”
Wouldn’t that be fitting? The boy on a bike becomes the man on the course.