Boo Weekley won at Hilton Head in 2007 and again in ’08, and coming into last week’s Verizon Heritage, all through South Carolina there were old men at sleepy filling stations talking about a threepeat. With chew under his lip and duck hunting on his mind, Boo’s an easy fit in the Low Country. He has looked right at home, parading around in his rumpled khakis and that old-school Phi Beta Haggis tartan sport coat they give the Heritage winner.
But by 5 p.m. on Sunday, Boo was putting his clubs in the back of a van packed with a couple dozen other Tour bags that soon would be rolling through the night to New Orleans. He knew the truth, and so did everybody else: His reign was over, and a new guy, 37-year-old Brian Gay, would be slipping into the tartan coat soon enough. BG had a 10-shot lead on a slippery and mossy course with itty-bitty greens. Not one of the veteran brand-name golfers behind him could make anything like a move — your Lee Janzens, your Davis Love IIIs, etc. — and in the end Gay won by 10. No mercy rule on the PGA Tour.
It was strange. Big wins usually come on big courses: Tiger by 12 at Augusta in ’97; Tiger by 15 at Pebble Beach in the 2000 U.S. Open. The par-71 Harbour Town Golf Links is not even 7,000 yards when it’s all stretched out. Ten is the biggest win margin ever at the Heritage. Gay now has the tournament scoring record, 20 under par. Very nice. His winning score, 264, should be drug-tested. The third-round leader closed with a 64, low man by two shots. Pow!
Poor CBS. After a spine-tingling Sunday at Augusta — Tiger! Phil! Angel! Chad! Kenny! — Sunday at Hilton Head had Jim Nantz & Co. resorting to pictures of luffing windsurfers and a group effort to describe Brian Gay’s bold look (pants the color of an unripe banana; a shirt he stole from George Jetson). Gay himself described his getup as “fashion forward.” To which he sensibly added, “if you will.”
Janzen, winner of two U.S. Opens, didn’t scare him. Neither did Jose Maria Olazabal, winner of two green jackets. Nor Todd Hamilton, winner of a British Open. Nor Tom Lehman, who turned 50 last month, another claret jug winner. Ditto for DL3, winner of a PGA Championship — and five tartan coats. Whatever happened to the phrase, “The Verizon Heritage doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday”? Nothing doing, not this year.
But in other ways tradition reigned at the Heritage. The Hilton Head stop is the spring break of golf tournaments. After two years of the Boo Weekley Show the crowd didn’t quite know what to make of the new guy, with his spiky hair and gargantuan lead, his mechanical-looking setup and his unresponsive demeanor. Among the spectators, or at least in one crowd of overdaiquiried collegians in flip-flops and polo shirts, you could hear witty comments like, “Brian’s gay.” You can be sure that Brian Gay’s been hearing that all his life. Evidently they knew nothing of Kimberly Gay, a north Florida gal who seemingly walked off the set of Dallas, circa 1989, and onto the PGA Tour. You’d want her at your party, unless you like dead parties.
Anyway, his last name brings to mind the Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue and these immortal lyrics: “But ya oughtta thank me before I die/For the gravel in yer guts and the spit in yer eye/’Cause I’m the son of a bitch that named you Sue.”
It so happens that Brian Gay comes by his surname the usual Western way, inherited from his father, M. Sgt. Joseph Gay, U.S. Army (ret.). There is, fittingly, no retreat in Brian Gay’s career. This is a man who toiled for seven years in professional golf before cracking the PGA Tour’s top 125, a man who played in 292 Tour events until winning for the first time, last year in Cancun. To keep at it takes guts. Of course a lack of other options helps too.
That doesn’t apply only to Gay. It pretty much goes for any of the golfers. There’s nothing like a tanking economy to get a player back on the range and back on his game. Todd Hamilton had a solid Masters this year, coming in 15th. He was solid at Hilton Head, finishing in a tie for fourth. Some of golf’s ever-growing population of talking heads have been hyperfocused on how much Hamilton, at 43, wants to, quote, get back in the winner’s circle, unquote. That’s all well and good, and every Tour player wants to win, but there’s something else dear to every man, woman and child who has his or her name sewn on the side of a supersized golf bag. It’s simple: Hamilton, in the final year of a five-year exemption for winning the 2004 British Open, made $131,000 at Augusta; he made $251,000 at Hilton Head. What else on God’s green earth is he going to do to earn that kind of money?
“I don’t know how to do a whole lot of other things,” Hamilton says. “My father owned a grocery store when I was growing up, and I was a pretty good bagger. I didn’t like to dust off the shelves. I didn’t mind carrying the ladies’ groceries out for them. No offense to the people who do that, but I wouldn’t want to have to do that.” In the last few months, after 30-plus years in the game, he has figured something out: Don’t practice in heavy winds. Practicing in big wind fouls the swing. Knowing that has helped him make better scores, and just in time.
Like Hamilton, Olazabal, Janzen, Lehman and Love are all searching for something, now with a little more urgency than in the years when real estate was going straight north and if you parked your money in the right place, a rich golfer could become richer yet.
Over the past decade Lehman and Love developed solid reputations as budding golf course architects. Davis’s brother, Mark, worked in the Love design business full time. But across the country there is virtually no course construction going on right now, and Mark, during some weeks this year, has been back out on Tour, caddying for Davis, just as he was in 1997 when Love won the PGA Championship. Love — with a closing 74 and Joe LaCava, Fred Couples’s caddie, on his bag — finished in a five-way tie for 21st, as did Lehman. For their efforts each earned $59,000. Do you know how many calls the ordinary course architect has to make to collect an overdue $60,000 payment from a client?
Lehman allows that only recently has he figured out how to manage his practice time during his off-weeks. “People call and ask me to play in charity outings,” he says. “I’d say yes, and it would be six hours. Now I say, ‘I can’t do the outing, but why don’t you auction off an hourlong teaching session with me at my club?’ That gets me to the course, the teaching gets me thinking about the swing, and when I’m done, I go to work on my own stuff.”
Janzen, who tied with Hamilton at Hilton Head, cannot simply enter any tournament he wants anymore, as he could for years, and he says that he has to make every chance he gets to play really, really count. Olazabal, who finished in a tie for sixth, earning $198,000, says nearly the same thing. For most of 2008 he couldn’t play because of chronic tiredness. When he feels the energy to play, and the tournament is on a course that suits him, he has to make the most of it. More to the point, he has seen what has happened to his friend and mentor, Seve Ballesteros, who is recovering from a malignant brain tumor. What Seve would give now, to be able to enter a tournament and shoot 296 and make last-place money, $10,500, like Robert Garrigus did last week.
A golfer’s career is a frail thing. If Brian Gay forgets that for a month or two, he is to be excused. A 10-shot win and a $1 million payday could do that to anyone. But sooner or later he’ll come back to reality. They all do. Between Hamilton and Love and Janzen and Lehman and Olazabal you have the Grand Slam. But nobody was talking about their long-ago glories last week.
When the new champ put on the winner’s tartan coat and picked up a microphone and addressed the throng, something came through to the Hilton Head faithful. No, Brian Gay is no Boo. Nobody is. But they could hear Gay’s Alabama and Georgia boyhood in his voice. They could see him sipping a Michelob as he made his rounds. They could tell: He was one of them. He said he looks forward to returning in 2010 to defend his title. Of course he does. Hilton Head’s a garden spot, and they give you a tartan coat and $1 million for winning and $10,000 for making the cut. Nice work, if you can get it.