CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA | Until now, he never felt like he belonged and to look at him, you can easily see why. Take a quick glance up and down the range at the Wells Fargo Championship and he sticks out as if he were a dandelion at Augusta National, wildly out of place and waiting to be plucked off the property.
He has no swing guru and it shows. He attacks the ball with a series of twists and pulls and whirls, so many things moving at once that if it ever broke down, you’d have to order parts that weren’t original equipment. He’s called “Two Gloves” for his handwear, which is not fine cabretta leather like Tour players get for free every week. No, he wears all-weather gloves on each hand for every shot, the kind you can find at your average retailer, two for $19.95.
He has no mental coach, preferring to take on that role himself because no one believes in him quite like he does. He has no high-profile caddie, just a garden variety PGA Tour looper who can show up, keep up and shut up so his man can do his best work. He’s not refined or educated and carries around an accent that weighs more than a 50-pound sack of farmhouse feed.
Tommy Gainey, from tiny Bishopville, S.C., with a swing constructed from duct tape, scrap metal and a helluva lot of hope, is 25th on the Tour money list after a second straight third-place finish, two weeks ago at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and the week before that at The Heritage. He finished fifth at The Honda Classic and tied for eighth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he led much of the tournament before drowning his hopes in the pond to the left of the 17th green at TPC Scottsdale.
He’s ahead of Steve Stricker, Adam Scott, Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas and a couple of dozen other players with profiles much higher than Gainey’s. He’s made more than $1.2 million already this year, more money than he’s ever seen in his life, yet you’d think he didn’t have two nickels to rub together, the way he talks and acts and plays.
The Wells Fargo Championship was his 15th event of the year, having taken only two weeks off this season, that during the Puerto Rico Championship in March and The Masters, as if he’s afraid that if he misses a week, somebody’s going to discover that he’s an imposter, kick him out and revoke his Tour card.
Yet, the better he plays, the more confidence he builds and the more respect he gains from his fellow players, fans and media. And the farther away he gets from wrapping insulation around water heaters on an assembly line for A.O. Smith, which he did while trying to find enough of a golf game to compete. In the sweetest irony you could ever find, A.O. Smith, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is now Gainey’s primary sponsor.
Gainey labored on the Tarheel Tour, the Hooters Tour, the Gateway Tour and the Nationwide Tour before finding his way onto the big Tour in 2008. He struggled mightily for the next two years and returned to the Nationwide Tour in 2010, winning twice and finishing fourth on the money list with a ticket back to the show.
As much as Gainey needs golf, just as much does golf need Gainey. While you wouldn’t copy his swing for any amount of money, today’s Tour player would do well to mimic Gainey’s honesty and accessibility. He’s unafraid of telling you exactly what he thinks and how he feels. Especially when it comes to critiques of his swing.
“Nobody talks about Bubba Watson wailing at it,” Gainey says. “I mean, if you look – the next time you see Bubba swing at it, pay attention to his feet; they come off the ground and he still hits it 400 yards. Now, you don’t see Rory McIlroy do that, do you?”
And he knows that the drummer he marches to is not the same as most of the rest of the Tour.
“Well, you know, I try not to worry about being accepted by the other players because I feel like to be accepted you have to win,” he says. “I just do my thing. I do my thing a little different than all these other players. They go out there, they practice four, five hours a day. I don’t do that. What I do is I practice on the things that I’m sure I need to practice on.”
And the next thing you know, Gainey is liable to be hoisting a trophy on the PGA Tour. He’ll stick out for that and the rest won’t matter anymore, not one bit.