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Breaking Big

Tommy “Two gloves” Gainey navigated the mini-tours and the tour before winning on the PGA Tour
| By Jeff Williams | From Jeremy Irons, March/April 2013
Breaking Big
Wearing his trademark gloves, Gainey takes his first tee shot of the Humana Challenge in Palm Springs, California, at the start of the 2013 PGA Tour.

When Tommy Gainey won the 2012 McGladrey Classic, there was a certain reserve to his celebration, a certain calm and a certain confidence. Gainey’s route to victory on the PGA Tour had been circuitous, bumpy and with a few turns that seemed to lead to dead end roads. Yet Gainey knew something that not many folks did. Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey knew he was a winner and on that Sunday last October, he proved it.

With a home-built swing that resembles a landscaper digging a posthole, with gloves on both his hands and a constant crop of stubble on his face, Gainey doesn’t look the part of the well-honed PGA Tour pro. He didn’t play college golf like them, didn’t play the junior tours like them, didn’t have any formal coaching like them, and never had much money in his pocket.

But he had a game that was all his own, dug out of the dirt more than 20 years ago at the Bishopville Country Club, a municipal course in South Carolina where his dad, the original Tommy Gainey, played golf. Through the hard life of the mini-tours, the pressure-filled money matches at Carolina country clubs, two appearances on Golf Channel’s “The Big Break,” and the need to work a real job wrapping insulation around water heaters at A.O. Smith Co., the ungainly Gainey found his vectors to the PGA Tour. And coming as no surprise to him, he found himself kissing a trophy at the ripe age of 37.

“Now I’m considered a winner,” said Gainey as he sat casually but confidently on a leather sofa at the LaQuinta Resort in California, where he was playing in the Humana Challenge this January. “On the PGA Tour, in my opinion, you have winners, then you have players. To earn the respect of the rest of the players, you have to win. I believe now that I’m not just the guy who wears two gloves out there. I’m not a carnival guy, some guy you see in a parade. I’m not a joke. There might be some people who said this guy is a joke, like he’s in a circus, he’s got two gloves, he’s got an ugly swing. But you know what, he is a good guy. He’s won a golf tournament, so he deserves it, deserves the respect.”

That, it seems, is what Gainey has always wanted, the respect that comes with winning, and winning at the highest level. The final round 60 at Sea Island Resort in Georgia that gave him a come-from-behind victory in the McGladrey certainly caught as much attention as his unorthodox swing and the gloves on each hand.

One of the players he passed during that spectacular last round was Davis Love, the tournament host. Love won the final tournament of the 2008 season at Disney, beating out Gainey in what was Gainey’s best finish during his rookie year on tour. Love knew little about Gainey until that Disney tournament, and while he doesn’t know Gainey well, he knows a lot more now, having been beaten by him.

“Tommy is a golfer. He just plays golf,” says Love. “I’ve been in the hunt with him twice. I’ve been real impressed. He’s well-spoken. He’s a lot like Boo [Weekly]. You think he’s just a country guy, but he’s not.” That measure of respect is what Gainey has always wanted.

“Part of his fire is his desire to prove to everyone that he’s a good player,” says his agent Paul Graham, the former tour manager for Hootie & the Blowfish. “If you are going to make fun of my swing. I’m going to kick your ass. It’s a general feeling of his, not something that’s actually based on people making fun of him. For him, I don’t necessarily think it’s just about his swing. It’s proving I am as good as you are even though I didn’t get a college scholarship, didn’t win a bunch of junior tournaments, didn’t get out on tour until I was older.”

That swing does grab your attention when you first see it, those hands with two black gloves wrapped around the shaft with something resembling a baseball grip.

“He never looked the part,” says longtime friend and Tour player Kyle Thompson who remembers vividly first seeing Gainey’s swing. “You say, Wow, what was that? You have to look at his swing a couple of times to get an understanding of it. His grip looks like he’s riding a Harley Davidson.”

William McGirt, a PGA Tour player and a friend of Gainey’s from the mini-tour days, was sort of dumbstruck when he first saw Gainey play.

“We were playing the Gateway Tour together down in Myrtle Beach and we got paired together a few times that summer,” says McGirt. “I saw him swing it the first time and I thought who is this guy? Then he shoots like 62, 63 the first two rounds and I’m like whoa!

“Looks are definitely deceiving. When you first see him you don’t think he could play dead in a John Wayne movie. Then he cleans you out for 500 bucks, and you say wow. The guy can flat out play golf. I tried to figure it out, but realized real quick there was no figuring it out. It’s pure hand-eye coordination and a ton of talent.”

Born in Darlington, South Carolina, Gainey was the youngest son of Tommy Sr., a textile worker, and wife Judy, who worked in a wood plant. His father, who wore two gloves himself, would take him and his brother Allen to Bishopville Country Club, where the boys would bat it around, trying to get in as much golf as they could, sharing a set of their father’s clubs.

“My brother and I played marathon golf, as many holes as we could,” says Gainey. “We just were beating it around as much as we could, and it worked out. My father introduced me to baseball and golf. It just seemed like I picked up golf kind of quick. A lot of my friends would say, wow, you just made seven birdies in eight holes but you made three doubles. The “wow” factor came in when I was so young.

“When I was playing around 15-16, my family, my friends said you got potential. It was about then I decided to focus on golf and leave baseball alone. I got better, but when I graduated high school no one recruited me, no colleges, no nothin’.” Without any scholarship offers for golf, and with little money in the family coffers, Gainey kicked around playing money games and doing odd jobs before heading out to Central Carolina Technical College in 1999 where he earned a certificate in industrial maintenance. The PGA Tour was just something he watched on television, and occasionally dreamed about. He got a part-time job in the testing laboratory of the A.O. Smith Co. and then a full-time job on a water heater line, wrapping insulation around the heater barrels.

“I was making short of $8 an hour so back then it wasn’t a lot of money. I was working full-time at A.O. Smith­—six days a week, I might add. No time to practice golf except after church on Sunday. During the week I’d work from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and when you get through you don’t want to do anything but relax and do nothing.”

But he did enough with his golf game to be a favored horse for bettors to ride. He and Thompson played against each other or as partners in matches that could be worth thousands. They weren’t playing for their own money, but they wouldn’t make any if they didn’t win. And Gainey played in smaller money games for himself, like the one at the Bermuda Run golf course near Winston-Salem. It was there in 1996 he met Cliff Wilson, a businessman-farmer who played a game he could bet on. And on this Friday, when they were playing the regular “Captain’s Choice” matches, Wilson was looking for a little more action.

“He was in there, bragging about anyone one in here want to gamble a little bit,” says Gainey. “I was sitting there drinking a Coke and I stood up. ‘I’m in.’ ” So off they went to play for a little money, nothing drastic, as Gainey says, and right off the bat he’s in Wilson’s pocket.  “I start birdie, birdie, eagle, par, birdie,” says Gainey. “When we get back in, he said I owe you this much. I said, you know what, I don’t want the money because it’s all about proving to people about me. I just proved a point.”

He proved himself big time to Wilson. “Here was this little skinny boy and he was driving the par 4s on this little course, putting for eagle half the time,” says Wilson. “He made a pitch and putt out of these little nine-holers. He was breaking 60 half the time, it seemed. He was a birdie, eagle machine.”

They were friends from the get-go. In 1997, while Gainey was working for A.O. Smith, Wilson told him he ought to give a shot at playing a mini- tour event in Columbia, South Carolina. The mini-tours are all about playing for your own money, hoping to at least win back your entry fee and nab some of your competitor’s money. For Gainey, money had always been an issue, and putting up $750 to play in this TearDrop Tour event was out of the question. Wilson asked him how much he could afford to pay and Gainey said maybe $150. Wilson said he would put up the rest.

So in his first tournament as a professional, Tommy Gainey won, holding his nerve down the final holes, then sitting in the clubhouse as the leader lost his. The first place check was $15,000, a fortune to him, but somehow he didn’t think it was his fortune. He thought most of it belonged to Wilson.

“I said Cliff, how much do I owe you,” says Gainey. “He said, you know Tom, I don’t want any of this money. He said tell you what, I believe you are special. Now when you think about that for a sec, it’s special. When he says you’re special, it could mean a lot of things. We had been pretty tight and I consider him sort of a second father type deal. I’m thinking—special—I was young at the time and sort of just let it go. But now when I look back at it, I think, Know what? He was right. He sees something in me that everyone else had seen but everybody else didn’t make a move to try to help me get to that level, and he did. It was all about money and you had to have money to play.”

“I can tell you one thing,” says Wilson. “Tommy’s swing don’t look ugly when you are playing with him. People watching on TV might think it’s ugly, but when you have to play against this guy, all you see is that it’s darn effective.”

That mini-tour victory didn’t automatically put him on the road to PGA Tour success. He worked at A.O. Smith for a while longer, played the mini-tours, worked at Smith again, played gambling matches, moved furniture, took care of golf carts at a course where he could practice. He didn’t have a coach, only his brother Allen serving as a knowing pair of eyes. That relationship stands today.

Then in 2005 Paul Graham dropped into his life, discovering Gainey quite by accident as he was signing up another player. Graham was getting back into the golf agent business after managing Hootie & the Blowfish; he still manages the group’s charity tournament the day after the Masters.

“The first time we played together two weeks after sitting down and talking together, he shot 64 with two three putts,” says Graham. “And it didn’t even look like he shot 64. It was very natural, very easy.”

Hootie’s tournament, with a big celebrity component, was broadcast by the Golf Channel. “Through that I met a bunch of guys at the Golf Channel,” says Graham. “My buddy there who ran “The Big Break,” I called him up and said listen man, you need to get some guys out there who are players, not just some characters who are going to go out there and miss the cut all the time. He said who you got? I said I had this guy Tommy and he’ll be at the Hootie tournament the day after the Masters, just check him out. He did, Tommy went down there for a rehearsal and that was it. “The Big Break” [in 2007 and again in 2009] really helped him. And the Golf Channel really enjoyed him as well. That sort of kick- started things for him, but my main goal was to get him on the big tour.”

In 2007 Gainey went through all three stages of the PGA Tour qualifying school to gain his playing privileges for the 2008 season. It was a massive step in his life, and he stumbled more often than not. He got into 17 tournaments and only made the cut in six of them, at one point missing 13 straight cuts. He didn’t expect to be a contender right off the bat, playing against the best players in the world who had a bag full of knowledge about the tour courses. But missing 13 cuts in a row started giving him dark thoughts.

“I’m starting to think maybe my game isn’t good enough to be out here,” says Gainey. “I’m starting to second-guess my game, my confidence is starting to go down. I am thinking all sorts of negative stuff. When you start doing that, you got to get away from it. I was smart enough to do that. Take a week off.

“I don’t know what happened, but I get to the last tournament and I finished second to Davis Love at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic. I changed caddies, Don Donatello, he read putts for me, kept me loose. I had a great finish. What it did for me, for my confidence, was unbelievable.”

That finish wasn’t enough for him to keep full playing privileges on the tour for 2009. He went back and forth between the PGA Tour and the Tour that season, then only played the Tour in 2010, where he finally won a tournament and qualified off the money list to play the PGA Tour in 2011. Four third-place finishes in 2011 along with some other solid play allowed him to earn more than $2 million, securing a place on the PGA Tour for 2012, and ultimately leading to his win at the McGladrey.

“I was with Tommy the day after the McGladrey and I thought he would be really jacked up, in a real celebratory mood,” says Golf Channel commentator Charlie Rymer, who is also represented by Graham. “He was the opposite. He said ‘I worked my tail off to get there and I expected to win.’ That’s the way he is.”

Gainey had built quite a reputation as a mini-tour and big-money match player in the Carolinas. “I knew who he was before I knew him. Having grown up in South Carolina, I’d heard of this ‘Two Gloves’ guy, this guy who could play but couldn’t put it together to get on the PGA Tour,” says Rymer. “He was a mini-tour legend. When I started being represented by Paul Graham, I did some corporate outings with Tommy. I can remember being with Paul when Tommy was on the Tour and I told Paul I thought that was going to be as far as Tommy could go. Paul vehemently disagreed with me. He really saw what Tommy could do. He had a strong belief in Tommy. Tommy proved me wrong, and he’s been proving everybody wrong his whole life.”

Graham’s belief is grounded in the fact that Gainey is so well grounded himself. “He’s a real down-to-earth guy,” says Graham. “He loves South Carolina football, loves Carolina athletics, loves South Carolina, loves his son [Tommy III by a previous girlfriend], loves his wife [Erin], loves his family, his friends. He loves going to South Carolina football games, he’s a big Cowboys fan. There are no airs about him. I’ve never had a time where I’m scratching my head about this guy.”
And Graham quit scratching his head about Gainey’s inconsistent play. He knows Gainey is going to miss cuts, maybe a lot of them, and knows that Gainey will contend with the best.

“Tommy has what I call the ‘rainbow’ scorecard,” says Graham. “If you look at a scorecard on, it’s a whole bunch of colors, blue for birdies, yellow for bogies, red for big numbers. That’s sort of Tommy’s scorecard. I don’t worry about Tommy anymore, those rainbow cards. He’s got more game than anyone out there on tour. Just physical game, going out to hit a shot, it’s phenomenal.”

McGirt backs up Graham’s assertion, saying that from a pure ball-striking perspective, Gainey is right there with the best.

“The thing that has always impressed me, if you take a top 30 or 40 player in the world and Tommy, and you put them behind a wall and you can’t see a thing and you can only hear contact, and you saw the ball flight and you didn’t know which one was which, you would never be able to pick them apart,” says McGirt. “He hits it as good as anybody out here. He’s got that unorthodox swing, and that grip, but it works for him.”

That swing, combined with some occasionally dead-on putting, has given Tommy Gainey membership into golf’s most exclusive club, the PGA Tour. In the process of trying to prove to everyone else how much talent he has, he’s also proven it to himself.

“When I first got out here, I was star struck because I was with all these guys I grew up watching on TV,” says Gainey. “I’m as close to you as I am to them, on the practice range, in the locker room, in family dining. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh. I feel I am more comfortable in my own skin. My confidence is so much better than it was. Once you win out here, you prove a lot of people wrong. There were a lot of people who didn’t think I could get it done. Once you win out here, I proved to myself that I can do a lot bigger things.”

As Paul Graham says of his charge, “He’s the best story in golf, and he will continue to be.”

Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.


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