Greg McBride stood behind the counter at Northwoods Golf Club on the Wednesday before Christmas, checking in players for the club’s weekly “dogfight” competition. Nothing unusual there — except this week, the presence of a PGA Tour champion who also happens to be a Northwoods “alumnus.”
Tommy Gainey arrived lugging his big tour bag — the one bearing his new “Two Gloves” logo — decked out in jeans and a black cap and black wind shirt with Gamecocks logos. If you didn’t recognize the winner of last month’s McGladrey Classic, you might’ve figured he was another local looking for a little action.
Around here, that’s just how Gainey — The State’s Professional Athlete of the Year for 2012 — likes it.
“I think he enjoys it here,” said McBride, Northwoods’ owner and head professional. “No one cares that he’s Tommy Gainey, and there’s not many places he can come and be off, but also have a little ‘skin’ in the game.”
“I try to play here when I’m in town,” Gainey said with his trademark crooked grin. “I know I have the best job in the world, and I’m very blessed to do what I’m doing.”
And he likes sharing that with old friends.
Gainey’s roots run deep at Northwoods — a framed photo from his “Big Break IV” competition featuring his signature and “To Northwoods, I still got (his club-record) 59” sits on a pro shop display table — and also around the Midlands. He grew up in Bishopville, lives in Hartsville (after moving this year from Camden), and honed his unique, self-taught game over more than a decade of money matches at area courses.
Now, he competes against the best players in the world, having logged finishes of 35th and 55th on the Tour money list the past two seasons and earning $1.54 million in 2012. But his win at Sea Island, Ga. — his first PGA Tour title in 105 starts — elevated him to another level: tournament winner.
Not only the victory, which gives him a two-year Tour exemption, but also how he did it — with a closing round of 60, the Tour’s low 18-hole round and low finish by a winner this year — and who he beat (host Davis Love III, Jim Furyk and David Toms, major winners all), has changed everything.
“There’s no better feeling than winning on the PGA Tour, unless it’s having a child,” Gainey said, then laughed. “I’ve done both, and there’s nothing like it.”
There also is this: Despite a second straight season in which he finished among the top 125 money winners, Gainey says that before McGladrey, he considered his year a failure — this despite already having assured his playing status for 2013.
“(In 2011), I had seven top-10s (finishes),” he said. “When you do that, coming into the next year, you feel like you’re going to win.”
Instead, Gainey had one top-five, a third at Colonial, before arriving at the next-to-last tournament of the year.
Gainey had struggled in 2012 in part due to wrist and elbow injuries, likely brought by over-use. His 32 tournaments entered tied for second-most by any player, and he said he practiced “a whole lot more” while adjusting to his new Callaway clubs.
“I made a lot of cuts (17), but I played terrible,” he said. “But McGladrey changed everything.”
Gainey started the final round seven shots back, teeing off 2½ hours ahead of co-leaders Furyk and Love. “I’m only trying to improve my standing, make a good finish for the week,” he said.
Gainey made everyone start paying attention. Eight birdies will do that.
“I started making putts,” he said. “The first three days, I rolled it good but nothing went in, but that day seemed like every birdie putt I got over, it went in.” His round then went from amazing to magical at the par-5 15th hole, where he holed out from a greenside bunker for eagle. “That pretty much sealed it that it was going to be a special day,” he said.
In fact, he said, shooting 10-under par to take the lead was the easy part. Waiting nearly three hours for the leaders — now his pursuers — to finish was “nerve-racking,” he said. “You’ve got Furyk, Love, Toms, all future Hall of Famers chasing ME.”
None caught him, but it was close.
Toms shot 63 to finish one back, while Furyk, who a week before had played nine holes with Gainey and afterward gave him a pep talk, needed a final-hole birdie to tie for the lead. After Furyk hit a good drive, Gainey — who had spent the wait watching on TV with wife, Erin, and texting friends, while Golf Channel’s cameras were trained on them — says his Columbia-based manager, Paul Graham, suggested he go to the range to warm up for a possible playoff.
“Then they said Furyk had hit a terrible second shot but you never know,” Gainey said. “Finally, Billy Andrade from Golf Channel came up and asked me, ‘How’s it feel to be a PGA Tour winner?’ Erin came up, gave me a hug and said ‘you finally did it, I’m so proud of you, I love you.’”
He laughed. “It takes a lot for me to (get emotional) but it was all the hard work and perseverance paid off. All those naysayers who said I’d never make it on tour or win a tournament it finally ended up in my favor.”
Not just immediately, but also for his future. Graham said winning has “helped (Gainey’s) brand, for sure. The recently created “Two Gloves” logo is available on hats and T-shirts at his website, TwoGloves.com, though Graham said, laughing, “We’re not Polo yet.” Too, Graham said, “Now that he’s won, we’ll set new goals. I want him to get on a team (Ryder Cup and/or Presidents Cup).”
For the most part, Gainey remains the small-town, former factory worker who wears two golf gloves in part because his swing was born from his double-gloved baseball days. His lone new sponsor (joining Callaway and A.O. Smith, the company for whom he once wrapped insulation around water heaters) is Mr. B’s Frozen Foods, founded by a meat-and-three restaurant in Lydia that is a long-time Gainey favorite.
He’s also unlikely to cut back on his heavy schedule, even knowing his job is secure through 2014. “I’ll try to play 28-30 events,” he said. “I’m hard-headed, and I kind of let wanting to play all the time get in the way of maybe my need to step back. But I love the game and want to be a part of that.”
There’s this, too: Gainey wants to play because he now knows he’s a threat to win regularly. “With Tommy being a late bloomer, we want to take advantage of opportunities to play” in big events, especially majors, Graham said. “My goal is to take care of his (business) deals, which he trusts me to do, and just let him play golf.”
David Robinson, a former fellow Web.com Tour player and Erin Gainey’s brother-in-law, says the biggest difference since McGladrey is Gainey’s confidence. “Winning anywhere is a stepping stone,” Robinson said, “but now he’s confident of winning at any level. He senses he belongs” on the PGA Tour.
Gainey will be there starting in January at the winners-only Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. For the next couple of weeks, though, he’s enjoying time with Erin and his son, Thomas, a 4-year-old who already has a wicked golf swing that looks like his dad’s. “There’s no doubt he’s my son,” Gainey said.
He and Erin want to add to their family, one reason they bought a larger house. “I have one son, not by her, so we’re going to try to work on that,” he said, smiling. “Definitely try to work on that.”
He’s 37, his wife is 31, and “the (biological) clock is ticking — I’ve heard that from her as well,” he said, laughing.
The clock on Gainey’s career, on the other hand, is no longer an issue.