It will be remembered as one of the signature occurrences of 2015; Gerina Piller rolling in a putt that was absolutely necessary to the United States’ Solheim Cup hopes, and moments later, embracing her husband with tears streaming down her face in full view of a world-wide television audience.
Piller’s 9-foot up-and-down par gave her a 1-up singles win over Caroline Masson. It did not give the U.S. the Solheim Cup; there were other matches still in progress, but it gave the American side a full point, a point it absolutely had to have. Had Piller’s putt failed to fall, the match would have been halved and Masson’s half point have given Europe the 14 points required for retention. Instead, the United States emerged with a 14 ½-13 ½ win to claim the Cup for the first time in six years.
“It’s pretty awesome that I could do that,” Piller said. “But it’s one of those things, it just happened. I looked at the board and [the European total] is 13 and a half. I didn’t want to be that person [that lost the deciding match], I just didn’t. Me and my coach talked about being great and getting up there. So I just told myself, ‘Gerina, just be great, hit this putt, that’s all you can do. Just roll it and it will go in.’”
Piller did more in Germany than sink one admittedly important putt; she compiled a team-best 3-0-1 record over the course of the week. She started out by joining forces with Brittany Lang to halve a four-ball match against local favorites Masson and Sandra Gal, then teamed up with Stacy Lewis to win twice, first in a foursomes (alternate-shot) match over Anna Nordqvist and Caroline Hedwall, and then in four-ball over Masson and Hedwall
Piller, who will turn 31 on March 29, was competing in her second Solheim Cup. She was part the American team in 2013 but being part of a winning team that overcame the largest final-day deficit in Cup history was a totally different experience.
“What an incredible and unforgettable week,” Piller said. “I was so proud of my team and honored to play for such a world class act in Juli Inkster. We did the unthinkable!”
For most, if not all of her professional career, Piller has gone about her business out of the spotlight although she’s known more than a little success. Her resume includes no fewer than 20 top-10 finishes. She’s been a runner-up twice, at the CME Group Titleholders in 2013 and at the Meijer LPGA Classic this past July. She has also accumulated close to $2 million in earnings. But she’s never won an LPGA tournament in part because her putter, which served her so well at the Solheim Cup, has let her down from time to time.
Piller has no quarrel over not receiving the public acclaim some of her peers have. Staying out of the limelight suits her just fine, thank you.
“I’ve always had a mindset of ‘Let my game do the talking,’” she says. “I actually don’t mind being the dark horse or flying underneath the radar and not having all these big expectations.”
Piller, née Mendoza, didn’t start out to be a golfer. She grew up wanting to pitch for the Texas Rangers. Growing up in Roswell, New Mexico as a self-described tomboy she was and continues to be an ardent baseball enthusiast. “My love has always been with baseball,” she says. “My mom made me stop playing after my 12-year old year.”
With her baseball dreams dashed, Piller focused her attention on volleyball, which she played through high school. “I just loved competing in volleyball,” she says. “It was intense, it was fast-paced, it was loud, it was so much different than golf and I just loved volleyball.”
Despite, or perhaps because of Piller’s talents in other sports, golf was not a high priority at first. “In wasn’t until I was in about eighth grade that I picked up my clubs,” she said. “I knew that obviously I wasn’t going to have a future in baseball as much as I would love for that to happen, I honestly thought I was going to be the first girl in MLB or the NFL, be a kicker, so I just kind of came down from the clouds and realized that I’m definitely not tall enough (at 5-7) to play volleyball after high school so it kind of left me with golf. I kind of made that realization and just started working hard at it but even through my high school career golf took a backseat to volleyball.
“Golf was a spring sport, we played from February or March to May and in the summers I never played AJGA or did much summer golf. It was time for volleyball.”
At Robert H. Goddard High — the high school that Nancy Lopez attended as generation earlier and that LPGA player Lizette Salas would attend later — Piller was a two-time all-state selection as a golfer and won an individual state championship as a senior. She also played on two state-championship teams.
But she was first and foremost a volleyball player. As an outside hitter, she played on two state-championship teams and earned all-state honors.
She went on to play college golf at Texas-El Paso where in 2006-07, her final collegiate season, she won four tournaments and won the Conference USA individual championship. She was selected as the conference’s Player of the Year and was also named to the conference’s academic honor roll.
After graduating from UTEP with a degree in Mathematics, Piller played three seasons on what was then the Futures Tour. Her fifth-place finish on the 2010 money list assured her of full status on the LPGA Tour the following season and she has been there ever since.
As Piller’s golf career evolved, so too did her Christian faith. “I became a believer when I was in middle school,” she says. “I didn’t really incorporate a lot of my spiritual life into golf. I really didn’t know what that looked like until I got older and I was playing on the Futures Tour and we had Bible study. We had girls out there that you’re competing against but you’re also going to Bible study with them so you kind of living life together.
“It wasn’t probably until then that I really kind of realized what putting golf in its the right position meant; putting God in the right position, putting family and friends in the right positions and just putting the priorities in the right order.
“Now I lean on [my faith] heavily because there’s just so much pressure and our name is always linked to a number, a dollar sign, a rank, score, you’re always being compared. When Rory (McIlroy) won the two majors (in 2014), instead of hearing the media say ‘Wow, that was really awesome,’ you heard ‘Let’s compare him to so and so.’ It’s just never good enough.
“And that is not what Christ says. His work is done. We’ll never be as good as Christ but it’s already been paid for. I find peace in that in itself.”
Many athletes, and non-athletes for that matter, have struggled with finding the right balance between their professional and spiritual lives, between stoking the competitive fires necessary for professional success and staying true to the tenants of their faith.
Piller admits that’s something she’s had to work at. It’s very tough to do,” she says. “I definitely have not perfected that.”
Piller found herself being tested in the period leading up to her first Solheim Cup appearance in 2013 when Meg Mallon made her a captain’s pick.
“I wanted to play on that team so much,” she recalls, “that it could easily have gotten in the way of my golf career. You could be pressing for that all the time when you’re teeing it up for a tournament. And so my prayer for that was ‘Let me be okay with whatever the decision is. If I’m on the time, let that being me joy and if I’m not on the team let that being me joy.’
“And it wasn’t a prayer of ‘Let me be on the team’ or anything like that it was more of ‘Whatever His plan is let me be okay with that.”
Piller seeks to find the right balance in her life with the help of her husband.
Martin Puller has spent much of his own seven-plus year professional career shuttling between the Web.com and PGA Tours. The 2014 season saw him record two Web.com wins and secure a PGA Tour card for 2015-16. Together the Pillers, who married in January of 2011, have created a mutual support system that many other couples would envy.
“I’m very lucky,” Gerina says. “I’m very lucky for just his support. He understands what I go through and I understand what he goes through. It’s awesome to know he’s proud of me because of who I am, not because of the golf I can play or the money I make or the scores I shoot. That’s really neat.”
In the end Piller says, balance is about understanding God’s role in the universe. “Its just being constantly reminded of how big God is and how small we are,” she says. “It gives me great peace to know it doesn’t matter what I shoot or what I do that day, I get to go home to a loving husband and that I have a family that loves me and a God that loves me.
“It’s really cool to know that He already knows what shots I’m going to hit this week so there’s no need to worry about it there’s no need to try to change things. He already knows so the only thing you can go out there and do is just let it happen and glorify Him in anything that comes along.”
In light of her recent Solheim Cup effort, Piller’s days of flying under the radar on the LPGA Tour are most likely at an end. Questions are sure to come about when she will at last win a tournament, questions she has tried to ignore in the past to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on herself.
“I hear it all the time, she says” ‘When are you going to win, you’re up next.” I’ve had good finishes and [winning] is kind of the next step but it’s kind of out of my hands. I just have to keep focusing on playing good golf and just control what I can control and that’s my golf game.”