Not only does Tommy Gainey make fellow country golfer Boo Weekley look like a city slicker, he is perhaps the most compelling rags-to-riches story on the PGA Tour since Lee Trevino.
Merry Mex had his Dr Pepper bottle. Gainey has his two gloves. Each has laughed all the way to Wells Fargo, to keep the golfy theme going.
Now that he has climbed from rural humble beginnings to the tour circle of winners, Gainey would appear worthy of, at the least, a made-for-cable flick. Pro bono suggestion: Woody Harrelson would fit the part.
This, of course, is a touching tale of a curiosity who wrapped insulation around water-heater tanks in South Carolina in the mid-1990s. That was back in the day when he would catch people by surprise playing money matches.
“When they saw me with two gloves on, they said, ‘Who is this guy with two gloves?’ ” Gainey once told me, referring to gambling opponents. “For them, it was like, ‘How much are we playing for, and how fast can he get to the first tee?’ ”
A few hundred lost dollars later, the challengers weren’t so enthusiastic.
It was four years ago that the self-taught Gainey evolved from novelty to threat, when he finished second to future Hall of Famer Davis Love III at the 2008 Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic. Then last year, he transformed into a legitimate contender, finishing third four times and ending up 35th in earnings.
Now he’s 37, and you can call him a champion, for his closing 60 Sunday at the McGladrey Classic was good enough to beat 13-time tour winner David Toms by a stroke.
It’s probably safe to say he’s the lone tour champion to come out of Central Carolina Technical College. In golf terms, Oklahoma State it isn’t. Nor are there many touring pros who have majored in something called industrial maintenance.
“Man, it feels like a dream,” Gainey said soon after winning. “I’m just waiting for somebody to slap me upside the head or pinch me or something to wake me up.”
While the two-glove style derives from his youth-baseball days, the seeds of his 2011-12 success grew from performance in the minors. His two victories on the 2010 Nationwide Tour made him believe. His confidence had elevated when he returned to the big show, where he had fared no better than 148th in earnings from 2008-09.
“I don’t think people understand how good the Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour is,” Gainey said. “If you can compete out there, you can win here. It did me good going back to the Nationwide and getting more developed.”
That development included improving his short game, which separates upper-level players from those below. The work and success have people viewing him differently. He long has been an aggressive player who swings “like he’s trying to kill a snake with a garden hose,” as Gainey maintains Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee described. But now he’s more refined, with an all-around game, as he showed Sunday in making eight birdies and an eagle.
“I had a hot putter, and I rode it out,” Gainey said after taking only 24 putts.
Gainey had struggled pretty much all year, with the exception of a third place at Colonial. Jim Furyk, a 16-time winner, was among those who noticed. Hence, Furyk asked to play nine practice holes with Gainey last week, and a pep talk ensued.
“He just told me, ‘Tommy, you know, when you were on the mini-tours, you were kicking their tail, and now you get out here and you struggle a little bit,’ ” Gainey said. “(Furyk) said, ‘Man, don’t change your game. Just keep doing it. You got the game to be out here and to win. Just keep your head up and just keep trying, and sooner or later it’s going to happen.’ ”
Sooner, as Furyk well knows, for he finished third, two shots back.
If there was a mini-tour around in the 1990s, Gainey probably played on it. Tarheel, Hooters, Grey Goose Gateway, US Pro Golf, Teardrop, you name it. Gainey learned how to go low while competing against many players who also would graduate to the big tour.
“Mini-tours,” he said, “you gotta make a lot of birdies.”
Gainey concedes he thought about quitting at times. But he plowed through, and now he’s gushing.
“I consider this,” he said, “the best job in the world, bar none.”
Even better than wrapping insulation around water heaters for A.O. Smith Co.
“I met a lot of great people there, and I still miss them to this day,” Gainey said. “But I don’t miss scratching all over the place, if you catch my drift.”