Golf

Low-key champ is no redneck

It's no secret the Verizon Heritage has a different type of champion on its hands.

Despite what his lime-green pants or spiky hair might exude, 2009 Heritage winner Brian Gay isn't going to spit tobacco, wear camouflage or throw out random jokes at the same pace as two-time champion Boo Weekley. Laid back and low key is the way that Gay does things, and it's also the way he took Harbour Town Golf Links by storm earlier this year, firing a score of 20 under to win by 10 strokes.

But as Gay returned to the site of his second career win for this week's sponsor day, his extroverted wife, Kimberly, made it clear that Weekley wasn't the only southerner who could have fun while winning in Hilton Head.

"That redneck's not going to show us up," Gay's wife said jokingly, using a word that Weekley often uses to describe himself. "Whatever Boo did, we're going to do better."

Indeed, Brian Gay is off to a great start, setting tournament records for final score, margin of victory and fewest number of bogeys (three) during that memorable April weekend. And by attending sponsor day, Gay furthered a tradition set by Weekley two years ago when he became the first Heritage winner to show up for the annual event honoring the tournament's many patrons.

"There wouldn't be a (PGA) Tour without you guys, so we appreciate the sponsors that help the Tour go round and give us a chance to give back to charity," Gay said during a 30-minute Q&A session with his wife and tournament director Steve Wilmot. "The amount of money we're able to give back here for this tournament is special."

Gestures like Gay's willingness to stop in Hilton Head before playing in this weekend's Shark Shootout in Naples, Fla., could prove key for the Heritage. After 24 years of serving as the title sponsor, Verizon announced in September that it will not return in that capacity when its contract expires in 2010, commencing a search to ensure the town can retain its marquee sporting event.

"We're working closely with the community, town and state officials, as well as our agency on the Tour to make it happen," Wilmot said. "That's why 2010 is so important for us. It's an opportunity to say thank you to Verizon for 24 years and, while we'll hopefully be announcing a new sponsor by that weekend, we'll be at least entertaining those potential sponsors during the upcoming tournament."

Monday's focus, however, was more lighthearted, with Gay sharing memories from a victory that remains "unbelievable" to him, yet was in the works for years, according to some.

In a "short" recollection of their experience, Kimberly Gay revealed how several locals, from a massage therapist to a salesperson, predicted her husband's victory earlier that week. Likewise, Brian Gay reminisced how one of his college buddies told him even before he joined the Tour in 1999 that the University of Florida All-American would capture victory at Hilton Head.

With this unprecedented performance coming during a breakout year that also included a win at the St. Jude Classic in June, Gay can now realize a life-long dream in playing at the Masters the week before defending his Heritage title in 2010.

Still, Gay has plenty more to prove - or at least that's one person's weighty yet playful assessment.

"A week after I won (the Heritage), I ran into (Arnold) Palmer at Bay Hill," Gay said. "He was hitting some balls, and he came over and shook my hand and congratulated me. He kind of acted like it was no big deal, though, because he said, 'You know, when I played there, it was so tight we had to walk single file down the fairways.'

"I guess that means it's not so tight anymore," Gay added amidst the crowd's laughter. "But that's OK."

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