Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories on first-timers in the Bridgestone Invitational field. Coming Monday: Derek Ernst.
BETHESDA, MD.: Tommy Gainey’s unorthodox road to the PGA Tour included two stints on an assembly line wrapping insulation on water heaters, two seasons on a reality television show and playing for $20,000 a hole in gambling matches arranged by a backer.
There were no silver spoons in his upbringing in Bishopville, S.C., a two-stoplight town that does have a country club.
Gainey’s brother Allen, 13 months younger, marvels at the money his middle-class parents spent on golf equipment for he and Tommy while raising four children. Their mother, Judy, still labors on the night shift at a plant that makes coffee filters, and Allen said Tommy is driven to earn enough so she can quit.
Nicknamed “Two Gloves” because of the pair he has worn since Little League baseball, Tommy Gainey Jr. is easily recognizable, thanks to that trademark and his appearances on the Golf Channel’s Big Break V and Big Break VII, which he won in 2007. But at age 37, he remains humble and thankful for his lot in life, even as he strives to prove he belongs.
“I think back and I realize how lucky I have it out here,” Gainey said last month before the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club. “If other players had the background I have, I think they would see it in a different light.
“I’m just very lucky and blessed. I enjoy being out here because I know it could be worse.”
Gainey has labored lately, making the cut in 11 out of 25 tournaments this year. His best finish, a tie for sixth, came in his first event, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Earlier this month, he tied for 41st in the Greenbrier Classic despite an opening-round 62.
But Gainey will make his first appearance in this week’s $8.75 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational by virtue of his first tour victory last October in the McGladrey Classic on St. Simons Island, Ga. Gainey shot 60 on Sunday and survived challenges from Jim Furyk, David Toms and Davis Love III.
“Man, it feels like I’m in a dream.” Gainey said afterward. “I’m just waiting for somebody to slap me up-side the head or pinch me or something to wake me up.”
That dream began in 1997. Gainey had been working six days a week for $9 an hour for about two years at A.O. Smith, now a sponsor, in the water heater division. He said having contact with insulation wasn’t good for his body.
So when a friend offered to pay the bulk of his $750 entry fee into a Teardrop Tour tournament in Columbia, S.C., Gainey surreptitiously took off work to play. He won, earning $15,000.
When he told his supervisor what he had done, Gainey’s boss asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his life, according to an September 2012 article in Golf Digest. Four days later, he gave his two-week notice and set out for the minitours.
Gainey has never taken lessons. He calls Allen, now an operations manager for Red Classic Transportation (an offshoot of Coca-Cola) in Charlotte, his only instructor.
Success was hard to come by in Gainey’s 10 years on the minitours, so he made money on the gambling circuit.
“Where we live in that area, there’s a lot of that that goes on,” Allen Gainey said in a telephone interview earlier this month. “That tells you what kind of player you are when people want to put certain amounts of money on you to play other people.”
That kind of competition toughened Gainey, but not like the Big Break.
“There’s so much pressure on that show,” Gainey said. “You could hit a good shot, a bad shot or a mediocre shot and you should be gone. Out here you can hit one bad shot and you might make double, but you still have holes left to make up for it.”
Following his son at Congressional, Tommy Gainey Sr. said the television show “gave me heart failure.”
He was voted back by fans for Big Break VII. After winning it, Gainey earned his PGA Tour card for 2008 at qualifying school. He has played on the Web.com (formerly the Nationwide Tour) or the PGA Tour since.
He thought about quitting in 2008 and 2009, when he made only 14 cuts in 39 events. But Gainey couldn’t give up the game his father introduced him to when he was 10, so he returned to the Nationwide Tour.
Having his son playing on the PGA Tour has been a blessing and a curse for Tommy Sr., 66, retired from his job as a material expediter for A.O. Smith.
“Dad lives vicariously through my brother,” Allen Gainey said. “He lives and dies on that computer every day my brother plays. I guarantee you he cusses ShotTracker more than any human being on this earth.”
Allen Gainey knows his brother is still working hard to prove himself.
“There’s been so many times he’s had doubters, even me,” Allen Gainey said. “But he never doubted he was going to play on the PGA Tour, that’s why he’s won.
“He’s put so much pressure on himself to win and to show his peers he belongs out there, I think that’s some of his issues sometimes. He wants to validate to everyone that he’s more than a guy who wears two gloves from the country.”
Gainey will never give up the two gloves, even though he’s tried during practice rounds.
“I’ve tried to play with one on each hand and it just didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t like it,” he said. “I could tell the contact I make, it’s just not the same.”
While he finished hitting balls on the driving range at Congressional, a fan asked Gainey for an old glove and his caddie, his brother-in-law, came up with one. The man told Gainey he had been rooting for him since seeing him on the Big Break.
“It’s still pretty humbling for me; that show was so long ago,” Gainey said later that day. “I’m glad they still remember and I’m glad they still pull for me. It’s an awesome feeling.”
His feelings almost overcame Gainey after his victory in the McGladrey Classic.
“I can handle my emotions pretty good, but I would have to say that was one of the best days ever,” Gainey said at Congressional. “I’ve got a 5-year-old son [Tommy III], so he definitely takes the top spot, along with getting married.
“It just goes to show you if you have a dream, pursue it because it can come true with hard work. I’ve definitely put in the time to be successful and it’s starting to pay off.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.