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'Big Break' star makes Tour, will play Sony

HARTSVILLE, S.C. (AP) — He's built water heaters and installed anodes for $9.15 an hour. He's got a swing - and a Southern drawl - that had European competitors on The Golf Channel's "Big Break IV" chuckling. And he's ready for somebody, perhaps even himself, to stand up to Tiger Woods' dominance.

PGA Tour, get ready for Tommy Gainey.

"I'm just a good ol' Southern boy, country as it gets," Gainey said. "I earned everything I've gotten."

The 32-year-old Gainey's down-home, straightforward approach has earned him the admiration of viewers from two "Big Break" appearances and, after seven tries, a PGA Tour card.

Gainey tied for 19th at Q-school last month for his exemption. He expects to tee it up at the Sony Open in Hawaii next week.

"I guess I'll be nervous," Gainey said recently. "But I'm not going to worry."

That's pretty much how Gainey has led his life so far.

He was a rising baseball player at Bishopville High when someone suggested he try golf. The 15-year-old was immediately hooked. He taught himself the game through playing, keeping his odd, 10-fingered baseball grip and continuing to wear gloves - hence, the nickname "Two Gloves" - on both hands.

Gainey hoped to play college golf, but was too inconsistent to attract attention. He went to Central Carolina Technical College and earned an industrial maintenance certificate.

"It involved a lot of valves," he recalled.

He caught on at the A.O. Smith Co.'s engineering lab, testing water heaters and moved on to a job at the plant's assembly line wrapping insulation because it paid more. Then came another step up, installing electrical parts. Golf was left to after work in the summer or weekend rounds with buddies.

"Living in the moment, that's about all I was doing," Gainey said.

Says Chip Chamberlin, general manager of the Hartsville Country Club where Gainey practices, "There are a lot of stories out there, but few like Tommy's."

In 1997, Gainey's friend, Cliff Wilson, bankrolled most of the $750 entrance fee to a TearDrop Tour event in Columbia. Gainey wound up winning his first pro start and $15,000. When he called to thank his friend, Wilson told Gainey he didn't want any winnings, just for "Two Gloves" to give golf a full-time try.

Gainey struggled for two years, chasing a career on mini-tours throughout the Southeast. When his parents were dealing with health problems, Gainey knew it was time to return to Bishopville.

He moved furniture until an opening came through at A.O. Smith that got him back at the plant. Golf was as far from his plans as it could be, Gainey said.

His life plan changed for good in late 2002. Friends pooled enough money for Gainey to play a Gateway Tour event in Myrtle Beach. He lost the title on the first playoff hole, but left thinking, "I can play with these guys."

His entrance to The Golf Channel's reality competition came after he played in Monday After The Masters, an annual charity gathering put on by noted golf dudes Hootie and the Blowfish. Gainey's manager, Paul Graham, used to manage the band during its mid-1990s hit-making heyday.

Soon after, Gainey was part of the fourth installment of the "Big Break" and billed as a "small-town golfer hailing from small-town USA."

That "Big Break" featured a team is U.S. golfers against a group of Europeans at historic St. Andrews' in Scotland.

Gainey, with his baseball grip and unusual swing, looked like an easy mark to some of the classically trained players.

"When they saw him with the swing, the two gloves, there was a little bit of laughing," said Dan Higgins, the Golf Channel spokesman who was at St. Andrews with Gainey.

Then they saw Gainey's long drives and accurate irons.

Gainey loved the experience, and his demeanor and game were transformed by the pressure that comes from having each shot dissected on TV.

He says those lessons helped him get through second-stage qualifying when he struggled down the stretch. He needed birdies on his final two holes to guarantee his first trip to the final stage and got them. "It was one of my proudest moments," he said.

But it's Gainey's sincerity and forthrightness that endeared him to "Big Break" fans. Higgins said his appeal was a big reason Gainey was invited back for the show's reunion edition, a competition Gainey won.

Higgins admits he didn't see a PGA Tour player when Gainey first showed up. But after the competition, "I, at least personally, saw a transformation," Higgins said. "He began picking things up and taking things seriously."

So seriously, Gainey sounds like he's ready to challenge the game's best right away. If he gets the chance, he said he'll do his best to beat the best in the world.

"I've got nothing against Tiger Woods," Gainey said, sitting in his golf cart. "But I'm tired of Tiger winning every tournament."

Gainey shrugs off those who knock his swing, which has a flatter takeaway than most. The important thing, say Gainey and PGA member Chamberlin, is that Gainey's back on plane when it's time to strike the ball.

If you think Gainey will change should he have tour success, forget it.

He'll keep his recently purchased home in Camden, no matter his fortunes, to stay near his family. He'd rather practice by playing a round than spend his time on the range. If Gainey's swing goes sideway, he'll call up younger brother Allen for advice. "No one knows my game better than him," he said.

Ask a question and Gainey will give a straight answer.

"No matter what happens, I'll never change," Gainey says. "I was raised to respect others and treat others the way I want to be treated. Tommy Gainey is a good ol' country boy who likes everybody."

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