After years of toil and hard knocks Brian Gay has become a consistent contender on the PGA Tour

Wednesday May 6th, 2009
After years of grinding, Brian (lifting Brantley), Kimberly and Makinley are basking in their day in the sun.
Todd Bigelow/Aurora

It all seemed so effortless. There was Brian Gay two Sundays ago at the Verizon Heritage, basking in a runaway victory as he strolled down one of golf's most famous holes, the 18th at Harbour Town. On TV the announcers had run out of superlatives; on the final green Gay was engulfed by his beaming wife and adorable daughters. In one fell swoop he had scored a $1 million payday, lasting job security and an invitation to the Masters, to say nothing of the admiration of his peers and a nation of golf fans. It took only four days of stellar golf to produce this picture-perfect scene, but Gay's journey has been much longer, and more taxing, than appearances would indicate.

Everybody's All-American at Florida, Gay, 37, spent the better part of a decade and a half trying to find his place on the PGA Tour. It was a wearying journey that entailed grinding through B-list tournaments and sweating out travel expenses, but through it all Gay somehow held on to the belief that someday his time would come.

"There were low moments," he says. "Lots of them. But I never lost the desire to win. I never let myself believe I wouldn't."

He was sustained by the endless cheerleading of his wife, Kimberly. For the Gays, golf has always been a team sport, and theirs is one of the PGA Tour's most interesting partnerships. If Hilton Head marked their arrival, last year's Mayakoba Golf Classic was one of the most important stops along the way, a breakthrough that came in Brian's 293rd career start. Because it happened in a faraway place (Playa del Carmen, Mexico) on the same day that Tiger Woods was winning the glamorous Accenture Match Play Championship, Gay's maiden victory did not generate many headlines, but it resonated deeply within the tight-knit Tour community as a triumph of such throwback values as hard work and perseverance. At Mayakoba players and caddies lingered after their final rounds so they could be on hand to congratulate the Gays, and on Golf Channel, commentator Jerry Foltz got choked up calling the final few holes.

"I like Brian a lot but I wouldn't say we're close friends," says Foltz, who was playing on the Nationwide tour in the late 1990s when Gay was cutting his teeth on that circuit. "It was emotional for me because I knew how much the victory meant to Brian on a personal level. I really almost lost it when his two daughters ran out on the final green. Can you imagine — for the first time in their lives he could say to them, 'Daddy is a winner.' And I also knew how much it meant to Kimberly. She is such a big part of the community of the Tour. How sweet it must have been for her to finally get to experience that."

In the heady moments after her husband's first victory, Kimberly received dozens of e-mails and text messages from the sorority of Tour wives. "I always believed in the camaraderie of the Tour," Kimberly says, "but what happened after Brian won showed me how much people genuinely care. Amanda Leonard" — wife of Justin — "wrote something that touched me deeply: This is your victory too. I embrace that."

And so does Brian, though he has a little trouble articulating it. His wife is boisterous and funny and theatrical and gregarious. Brian is none of these things. "They're living proof that opposites do in fact attract," says Gay's swing coach, Lynn Blake. But Brian has no trouble saying of his wife of 12 years, "She's always been there for me. Always. I guess we make a pretty good team."

Brian's journey to the Tour began in an unlikely place: Fort Rucker, in southeast Alabama, where his father, Joseph, was a master sergeant of flight operations. Joe was an archetypal military dad — stern and hard to please, and often gone for long stretches overseas. In his youth Joe had been on the All-Army golf team, and the game was one thing father and son could share. When Joe was away, Brian, an only child, spent long days at Fort Rucker's practice areas, often alone. When he was 10, Brian was invited to tag along for 18 holes with a sprawling group of salty retired military veterans who hung out at the course. "I remember that day so clearly," says Brian's mom, Margaret. "I picked him up at the course, and he had the biggest smile on his face I had ever seen."

These surrogate father figures encouraged young Brian's development in numerous ways. Because he couldn't hit it as far as the grown men he was competing against, he learned early to rely on a deadly short game and crafty course management. Playing mostly with adults also led to an on-course maturity that was manifested in a control of his emotions that didn't always end when the tournament was over. Margaret and her son had countless variations of the same phone conversation when Brian was at a junior tournament and she at her office, working in the civil service.

"How was your day, Brian?"

"Fine."

"How'd you play?

"Pretty good."

"O.K., Brian, just quit it and tell me how you finished."

"I won."

Says Margaret, who is as much of an extrovert as her daughter-in-law, "That's when I'd start hooting and hollering."

After dominating the local tournament scene as a tween, Brian was encouraged by the Fort Rucker elders to test himself on grander stages. "Every February we would sit down and work out his golf budget," says Margaret. "To be honest, there wasn't a lot of extra money, so I told Brian if those guys wanted him to play in all these tournaments, they would have to help pay for it." The vets passed the hat, and Brian played just enough big-time junior tournaments to attract the attention of college recruiters. He wound up at Florida, on the same powerhouse teams as future Tour players Chris Couch and Pat Bates. Gay won two SEC titles, and he was the leader of the 1993 national championship squad.

At the start of his junior year, in the fall of '92, Brian and Kimberly met in the Gainesville airport. He was en route to a tournament; she had recently graduated from Florida State and was working a desk job for Bristol-Meyers Squibb. ("Don't you dare put that in there or everybody will know I'm older than he is," she pleads.) After a little flirting they went their separate ways but wound up rendezvousing a few weeks later at a Florida-Georgia football game. "She asked me out," says Brian. "She may try to deny it, but it's true."

Despite the difference in the volume of their personalities, they had plenty in common, as Kimberly had grown up 50 miles from Fort Rucker, in Chipley, Fla., a Panhandle town so tiny "we didn't get a McDonald's until my senior year in high school," she says. Kimberly knew nothing about golf, but once she and Brian began dating, she educated herself by secretly watching tournament telecasts and taking playing lessons on the sly. Their marital life would be defined by golf from the beginning — in 1996 they became engaged the night before the first round of the U.S. Open, Brian's PGA Tour debut. Kimberly threw all of her considerable energy into being a supportive spouse. "If I had stayed in the business world, I feel like by now I could be running a major corporation," she says with enough conviction that there is no point in doubting her. "But this is the life we chose, and we were in it together."

Brian quickly discovered that his stellar college credentials meant nothing in the cutthroat pro game, and he struggled to find his way. What exactly was the problem? "Second stage of Q school," he says with a wince. His annual struggles there — he would fail five times — led to an extended tour of golf's minor leagues, including cameos on the Sunshine Players, Golden Bear, Emerald Coast, Gulf Coast, Gary Player, Tommy Armour, Hooters, Asian and Nationwide tours. What allowed Brian to keep going was his belief in his own talent (fortified by his nine wins on four mini-tours), his bride's rah-rah enthusiasm and, most of all, a deep-pocketed sponsor in Robert Shaw, a carpet magnate who had been impressed by Gay while hosting him during a long-ago junior event. Shaw staked the Gays with $50,000 in the early years. "We paid it all back eventually," Kimberly says with pride. She also took a series of jobs to help cover expenses and is not too proud to admit to having once cleaned a house for money. "We did what we had to do to get by," Kimberly says. For one year, when her husband was on the Nationwide tour, and then during Brian's rookie year on the PGA Tour in 1999, she worked for Darrell Survey, an equipment monitoring company, which explains how she seems to know every player, caddie, wife, reporter and hanger-on in the golf world.

After struggling as a rookie and having to return to Q school, Brian began to settle in on Tour as a very short hitter who got by with one of the purest putting strokes in the game. Gay soldiered through nearly every tournament he could get into, never playing fewer than 31 events a season. After a poor '03, he made another gut-wrenching trip to Q school, surviving it once again. Having won so much as an amateur and on the mini-tours, Gay grew accustomed to annually having to toil just to keep his job on Tour.

And yet Kimberly never stopped believing in her husband. At one point she called Amanda Leonard, whose hubby was at the time working with celebrity swing instructor Butch Harmon. Says Amanda, "I guess Brian was struggling a little bit, and Kimberly was hoping Butch would work with him. She was calling to ask if Justin could put in a good word for Brian, because Butch is such a busy guy. I was really struck that Kimberly would reach out like that. That's not an easy call to make. It's humbling. But that's Kimberly — she believes so much in Brian, and she will fight for him."

"Butch said no, he didn't want to work with Brian, but that was O.K.," says Kimberly, picking up the story. "We're used to being told no. No you can't play in this tournament. No you can't have a logo on your shirt. There have always been so many nos, but Brian just keeps going."

His on-course disappointments were leavened by a happy home life, as the Gays welcomed daughter Makinley in 2000. Another little sweetheart, Brantley, arrived in '04. The girls have traveled to almost every tournament, thanks to a flexible curriculum at a specialized school and their parents' can-do attitude, though Kimberly is candid that she and Brian have often fretted about the cost of having the whole family travel to more than two-dozen events a year. "We still don't believe in room service," says Kimberly. In fact the Gays have always been acutely aware of the gulf between the Tour's haves and have-mores. Seven weeks before Hilton Head, Kimberly was in her husband's gallery at the Mayakoba Classic when talk turned to a player who had recently bought a new airplane. That happens often enough on Tour, but this time the player in question owns exactly one career victory and last fall had to go to Q school to save his job. "Does everyone on Tour have more money than us?" Kimberly wondered aloud.

Having young children on the road presents myriad challenges; if you need a scouting report on hospitals in Fort Worth or Reno or Los Angeles, ask the Gays. But they also work hard to make the road trips fun-filled adventures for the kids. "They're an impressive family," says Amanda Leonard. "They're always at the tournament parties, and every time you see them they always seem so happy. They have found a great balance out here, which is not easy to do. I find them inspiring, and I know a lot of the other wives do too."

Explaining the family's wearying travel schedule, Kimberly says with a Dolly Partonesque giggle, "You know what — Brian and I really like each other. We actually like being together, which I know isn't the case with every husband and wife. It's also very important that the children know their father and not feel resentment. And I don't want Brian to be torn between playing golf and being with his family. Some people, I think they get tired and frustrated with this life and they give up. Whatever the challenges, we have embraced it."

Brian's career trajectory began to change in December 2005, with a family trip to Park City, Utah. He didn't want to try skiing for the first time, fearing he would get hurt. Kimberly talked him into it, naturally, and on the his final day on the slopes Brian wiped out and a ski pole slammed into his ribs, giving him a deep, painful bruise. Unable to swing a club, he spent the ensuing three weeks moping around their house in Florida. (After a long stretch in Palm Beach Gardens, the Gays have lived in the Orlando area since '99.) "He was so depressed," says Kimberly. "Seriously. I felt sooo guilty."

Enter John Riegger, a Tour veteran known for a deep curiosity about the golf swing. He told his buddy Brian that since he was just sitting around, he should check out this cool website Riegger had discovered, lynnblakegolf.com. Blake is a disciple of Homer Kelly, the mad genius who wrote The Golfing Machine, and Blake's website is dense with interesting and nontraditional ideas about the swing. To that point in his career Gay had bounced around among various instructors, often chasing a mythical 15 extra yards off the tee. His swing was an inefficient amalgam of competing theories. Nursing his sore ribs, he sat in front of the computer and read Blake's manifestos and surfed the video clips. Something resonated. Blake preaches that quarter- and half-swings are the building blocks to correct mechanics, and Gay, working on his own, began doing the drills.

"It was like starting over as a beginner with a clear mind," he says. "If I hadn't been hurt, I wouldn't have had the patience, but I couldn't make a full swing anyway." Using the website as his guide, Gay overhauled his setup and alignment and straightened his right arm at address, a position not unfamiliar to Lee Trevino and Ben Hogan, among others. Almost overnight Gay's swing was simpler, more repeatable and more on-plane. His ribs still throbbed, but he made his 2006 season debut at the Hope, shooting a 64 in the fourth round. Starting to get excited, Gay contacted Blake for the first time so they could work together face-to-face.

"It was like teaching a fish to swim," Blake says of Gay's quick learning curve. "Brian has always been one of the best wedge players and putters on Tour. I'd dare say he's one of the best in the history of the game. He's an aggressive player who never backs off, with absolutely no fear of going low. What he needed was some consistency in his ball striking. Once he found that, look out!"

Gay's progress was evident in '06, as he cashed more than $1 million (88th on the money list) in checks for only the second time in his career on the strength of 10 top 25 finishes. He also benefited from a new caddie, Kip Henley, a live wire who knows how to energize his laconic boss. Kimberly had spent years beseeching her husband to hook up with Henley — "I had a premonition about him," she says, "and when I know, I know" — just as she strongly encouraged Brian to work with trainer Chris Noss, who over the last year and a half has greatly increased Gay's flexibility, which had been compromised by two incidents of dislocated ribs and other nagging injuries through the years. Brian values his wife's counsel. "I have trouble making decisions," he admits. "I ride the fence, and she helps nudge me off."

Noss has learned to triangulate between husband and wife. "Because Brian's so quiet, she helps fill in the blanks," says Noss. "Sometimes she says what he's thinking."

After another successful season in '07 ($1.1 million, top 10 in driving accuracy and putting average), Gay began to feel as if he finally belonged. "I started feeling less stressed on the course," he says. "Bad hole, bad start, bad round — I simply let it roll off my shoulders." Some of this new confidence was expressed in his wardrobe, as he began wearing some of loudest pants on the PGA Tour. Maybe he's trying to keep up with Kimberly, whose tastes run toward hot pink and rhinestones; then again, Margaret Gay has a thing for jewelry and gold lame purses. ("He basically married someone just like his mother," Kimberly explains.)

Gay's upgraded play had erased his usual worries about job security; now all that was missing was a long overdue victory. When he arrived last year at Mayakoba he had the familiar feeling of being left out — he's never played in a World Golf Championship — but he perked up with his first practice round on the El Camaleon course. "I liked it as soon as I saw it because there are not a lot of courses on Tour where anybody can win, and this was one of 'em," Gay says. "There are a lot of courses where long hitters have such a huge advantage. Mayakoba, if you hit it off-line, there was a lot of trouble. And it was breezy, so with everyone missing greens, short game becomes more important. Basically, it was perfect for my game."

That week the Gays also enjoyed lots of family fun, hanging out at the beach and exploring the charming town of Playa del Carmen. "Barbara Nicklaus once told me that the only thing you can control is his mood when he walks out the door, and I have tried to live that," says Kimberly. "Brian was going to the course every day in such a good mood, and I think it carried over to his play."

Gay opened with rounds of 66 and 67 to put himself in contention, and then on Saturday broke out with a career-low 62, a lifetime of want and desire and practice and preparation distilled into one perfect round. That gave him a five-stroke lead, and he played bravely on Sunday, draining a 30-footer to save par on the 16th hole to secure the victory.

Kimberly spent much of the final round simultaneously fighting back tears and working the phones, organizing a private plane to ferry the family home on Sunday evening — "a first for us," she says. In Orlando a limo was waiting at the airport and about 40 friends and family had gathered at the Gays' house. They partied all night, with Brian winding up in the swimming pool sometime around 5 a.m. This year's final round at Hilton Head was also a family affair, as Kimberly secretly arranged for three dozen relatives to sneak into town on Sunday morning, leading to another joyous celebration. This time it petered out at 2:30 a.m.

Gay's victories have also lit up message boards across the Internet. At lynnblakegolf.com the other disciples have rejoiced in the success of one of their own, while at pgatour.com hundreds of congratulatory notes have poured in from people who had quietly waited all these years for Gay's breakthrough, including a handful of the old-timers he used to play with at Fort Rucker.

Gay's victory two weeks ago was a revelation to many, but his efficiency had already been quantified in the final 2008 stats: 196th in driving distance (270.5 yards) but first in scrambling (getting up and down 64.8% of the time he missed a green) and seventh in putting average. The Tour uses a complicated metric to determine scoring average, adjusting the number to take into account the scores of the rest of the field. Old-fashioned unadjusted scoring is also tabulated, and when all the strokes were counted Gay finished at 70.11, second only to Bob Tway (69.94) — remarkable given that Gay routinely gives up 30 or 40 yards off the tee to his playing partners.

Gay also made a career-best $2,205,513 in '08, but it wasn't quite enough. Because nothing ever comes easy for the Gays, Brian's career year was a little bittersweet in the end. He went into the season's final tournament, at Disney, 30th on the money list. If he could protect his position in the top 30, he would automatically earn a spot in this year's no-cut World Golf Championship at Doral, with its free money and gimme World Ranking points, and, more gloriously, finally punch his ticket to the Masters, where Gay has never played. Because Mayakoba is an event held concurrently with a World Golf Championship, the lords of Augusta don't deign to invite the winner. ("Like I said, we're used to being told no," says Kimberly.) At Disney, Brian put too much pressure on himself and struggled for two days, missing the cut and dropping to 31st on the list, by a whopping $3,342.

"We had a pity party for a few days," says Kimberly, "but I think it made Brian more determined to play well in 2009."

Indeed, at the outset of this season Gay was quietly one of the hottest players in the game, as over his first four events he shot 17 straight rounds at par or better. The golf world belatedly began to take notice. "I heard them on the Golf Channel talking about me making the Presidents Cup team and I thought they had the wrong guy," Brian said in late February.

Gay's win at Hilton Head shot him to 11th in the points race; he would make an exasperating alternate-shot foe. His instructor, Blake, sees even bigger things ahead. "I've always felt that Brian has the game and the courage to win a U.S. Open," he says. "He simply has to get there first." Having survived qualifying five times in the past 13 years (but never making the cut), Gay will be exempt into the Open for the first time if he can remain in the top 10 on the money list by May 25 — he's ninth — or crack the top 50 in the World Ranking. (He's 52nd.) Gay has played in only one British Open and three PGA Championships (his best finish, 20th, came last year at Oakland Hills) and is now well-positioned to earn exemptions to both.

More exciting is that next year he will finally get to tee it up at the Masters. Before settling at Fort Rucker, Gay lived in Louisville, Ga., about 40 miles southwest of Augusta, and he has always had a romantic attachment to the Masters. After they were married, Brian and Kimberly went on what she calls "a working honeymoon" as she caddied for him on the Asian tour. "I remember quite clearly, we were in the Philippines," says Kimberly, "and at three in the morning there was Brian sitting on the end of the bed watching the Masters on a tiny TV in our hotel room. He watched all night and then went out and played a tournament round in the morning."

It will be a thrill to watch a putting wizard like Gay try to solve Augusta National's greens, and after his 10-shot victory in Hilton Head there's no reason to think he can't win anytime, anywhere. The day after joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Johnny Miller, Jose Maria Olazabal and Steve Jones as the only players since 1970 to register a double-digit win on Tour, Brian was rolling down I-95 with Kimberly and the girls on the way home from Hilton Head, their rented SUV carrying a very conspicuous plaid jacket. "Do I feel different today?" Brian asked, parroting a question. "Well, I'm tired and hung over." After a chuckle he said, "I do think I'm ready to go to a different level where I can be a regular contender, no matter what week it is. My game is good enough, and now I have that belief."

Kimberly puts it another way: "You know what's funny? After he putted out at Hilton Head, one of my first thoughts was, Now we finally get to go to Firestone [for the World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational]. All these years we've been knocking on the door. Just knocking and knocking and knocking, and it's as if now someone has finally let us in. Of course there's so much excitement, especially the way Brian did it, but I think the strongest emotion might be relief. It's like, Phew, we finally made it!"

Even as Brian's career has taken off, he and Kimberly remain grounded. If you treat a professional athlete and his wife to dinner, you're usually lucky if they grunt an acknowledgment. If it's the Gays, the next morning Kimberly will hand deliver a thank-you note (on hot pink stationery with a leopard border) that says they are "humbled" by the attention. After SI's Todd Bigelow took some pictures for this story he found that wine and cheese had been delivered to his hotel room, a show of appreciation from the Gays.

"Our theme this year is to be thankful every day for where we are," says Kimberly. "Before almost every round I have told Brian, 'Try to step outside of yourself and appreciate this.' This year he was playing the Mercedes Championship for the first time. I know he wanted to focus on the golf, but I told him to look at the ocean, look at the palm trees, try to count the whales. We are so lucky to be leading this life. It has been such a struggle to get here, we never want to take anything for granted."

While his wife spoke in a passionate torrent of words, Brian sat, nodding. Did he have anything he wanted to add?

Gay flashed a smile. "Nah," he answered. "She pretty much said it all."

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