He has found a home on the PGA Tour, but nothing came easy for Tommy Gainey, who honed his unorthodox swing playing for high stakes in his native South Carolina
This is an article from the May 16, 2011 issue
The golf ball in the pine needles belongs to Tommy Gainey, but this is not where Two Gloves wants to be on cut day at Quail Hollow. His father, the original Tommy Gainey, who worked for 39 years in the textile industry, has come up from Bishopville, S.C. Gloves's younger brother, Allen, a transportation manager with Coca-Cola, has come from across town. There are assorted Gaineys and friends of Gaineys all over the gallery. They're rooting hard.
In Carolina golfing circles—the fancy clubs, the ragged munis, it doesn't matter which—almost everybody has heard of the legend of Two Gloves. They know of the big-money games at dusk, where Gloves was usually the last man standing, a wad of crumpled bills in his mitts. The 59 he shot at Northwoods Golf Club in Columbia, S.C. (He missed a 12-footer for 58.) The 400-yard drive he hit at Bishopville Country Club. ("It bounced one time and hit one of the players on the green on the shoulder," says James Medlin, the club's general manger. "And Tommy walks right up to the green and goes, 'I didn't know I could do that. I apologize.'") These are the stories that follow Gainey like a shadow—the latest mythical figure from Bishopville. There is Felix Anthony (Doc) Blanchard, a bruising fullback who won the Heisman while playing at Army in 1945. There is the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp, a reptilian humanoid said to terrorize locals with red eyes, green skin and sharp, black fingernails. And there is Two Gloves.
Gainey slashes his ball off the pine needles at the par-5 5th hole, and it flies a bunker, skids across the green and settles into the rough, leaving a tricky birdie chip, which he runs about six feet by. "A par on a par-5," he mutters as he walks off the green. Gainey spots a young girl with a purple ribbon in her hair. He walks over and hands her the ball, eliciting applause and shouts of "Tommy" and "Gloves." He plays his last four holes in even par, slapping at a large watercooler after failing to birdie the par-5 7th.
After back-to-back third-place finishes at Hilton Head and New Orleans, Gainey would miss the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship by three shots, but the big picture still looks good. He also was in the top 10 at Phoenix and the Honda. In 15 events this season he has pocketed $1,250,497, and he is 92nd in the World Golf Ranking. Outside the ropes at Quail Hollow were tons of friends and family—his wife, Erin, whom he married in December, and his three-year-old son, Tommy III (his granddaddy calls him Trey), who lives with a former girlfriend. There are folks from the Low Country and Clemson and Charlotte and everywhere, it seems. The $9.5 million Players is next up, and Gloves is in the field.
His second stint on the PGA Tour is going miles better than his first, which was in 2008, when, despite a runner-up finish at the Tour's season finale, the Children's Miracle Network Classic in Orlando, he lost his card, missing the cut in 17 of 24 events. Two wins on the Nationwide tour last year helped get him back this season, but that is only a fraction of the story.
"It's been a long, hard road," the 35-year-old Gainey says. He is standing in the practice area at Quail Hollow, minutes after missing the cut. He is half in the sun, half in the shade.
He's just a plain ol' country boy," says Tommy Gainey Sr. "He ain't gonna change. He can be in a roomful of movie stars and he's going to talk the same way."
This is the man who taught his boys the game, the man who wore two gloves long before anybody in the family did. "I grip the club real hard," the father says. "I was getting callouses."
By age nine his oldest son was becoming a regular at Bishopville Country Club, "coming here with no shoes on him with his little brother and his best friend," says Medlin, the general manager. "They'd come out here and play and then go in the woods looking for balls."
Like his father, Gainey wore two gloves for comfort (depending on the climate, sometimes opting for an all-weather variety) but played with a 10-finger grip. ("I'm swinging like I swing a baseball bat," Gainey says of his idiosyncratic, hunched-over move.) Though he became the No. 1 player on the Bishopville High team, no college recruited him.
In 1993 he enrolled at Central Carolina Technical College in Sumter, took a year and a half of industrial maintenance courses (hydraulics, valves, oil, electricity) and put in an application for a temporary job at A.O. Smith in McBee. Six months later he landed a permanent position at the company, wrapping insulation for the water heaters that came flying down the assembly line: six days a week, nine hours a day, $8.25 an hour.
"I went from being a good golfer to a weekend golfer with a job," Gainey says.
But even playing on the weekends, Gainey exhibited skills that were undeniable to those who came across him. In 1997 a friend offered to pay all but $100 of a $750 entry fee for Gainey to play in a Teardrop tour event in Columbia. Gainey paid the rest and won the darn thing.
"I won $15,000," Gainey says. "That opens your eyes."
Two Gloves spent most of his 20s bouncing around the mini-tours and competing in money games in the Carolinas. He quit A.O. Smith (only to return one more time for a three-month stint). He moved furniture. He became a cart attendant at Dunes West Golf Club in Mount Pleasant, living rent-free for three years in a hotel owned by a friend and burnishing his legend as a hustler.
"You see him with his swing and his two gloves, and he looks like the average guy," says Richard Rankin, the general manager at Dunes West. "So you say, 'Hey, how much you want to play for?' You're saying uncle on about the fifth hole."
In the big-money matches Gainey and other players would be backed by sponsors who would bet on them.
"We used to have some money games that could get up there," Gainey says. "I don't want to say any amounts, and I don't want to say no names." But he does say the amounts. "Some got up to almost 10 Gs a hole and half of that," Gainey adds. "The sponsors we had gave us a percentage. I don't want to say any more."
About six years ago, through a fellow player who was looking for an agent, Gainey was in a meeting with Paul Graham, a onetime manager of Hootie and the Blowfish, who was getting back into the agent business.
"Tommy was sitting there the whole time," Graham says. "I signed the other player and said, 'Tommy, what are you doing here?' He starts talking to me like I'm the money guy for one of his gambling matches. I said, 'Tommy, my goal is to protect you from guys like that.' And he said, 'Give me one of those papers. I'm going to sign with you too.'"
It was Graham who helped get Gainey on Golf Channel's Big Break IV in 2005, when most of the world learned of Two Gloves for the first time. He got knocked out in episode seven, but he was invited back for Big Break VII in '07, which he promptly won. His victory earned him $25,000 and a new car, among other things. He was 19th at Q school in '07, finished 236th in the FedEx Cup standings the following year and has made it back to the Show—in a big way. Gloves has a good grip on things.
"He hasn't changed since middle school, when I first started playing with him," says PGA Tour veteran Jonathan Byrd, who was born in Anderson, S.C. "He played with two gloves back then too."
Gainey likes to say that golf is the hardest game in the world and the best game in the world, and he saw both sides in his two rounds at Quail Hollow. "Golf is just something I always wanted to do," he says. He is wearing an a.o. smith cap, his life having come full circle, his future as bright as the Carolina blue sky.
"If Tommy Gainey ever starts putting like he used to putt at an early age, look out," Gainey Sr. says. "He's not going to win one tournament. He's going to win many tournaments. But he won't think he's made it until he wins a PGA Tour event and plays in the Masters."
Like that, the mind wanders to two black gloves, poking through the arms of a green jacket.
Now on GOLF.com
Follow Tommy (Two Gloves) Gainey in this week's Players at GOLF.com/players
BONUS SECTION | GOLF.COM
In a performance that would have made Seve proud, Lucas Glover ended an almost two-year victory drought at Quail Hollow
Two Clemson alumni chased the sunset on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship, through springtime shadows and overlush, verdant grounds. While there is no indication that Seve Ballesteros was a Clemson fan, he would have loved the gloaming at Quail Hollow Club, seeing Lucas Glover with his ball below his feet and Jonathan Byrd with his ball sitting precariously on a creek bank, and so much pride and emotion on display. All week Glover and Byrd had talked about meeting in the final round with the title at stake. They had competed against each other in countless South Carolina amateur events, shared three years at Clemson and played hundreds of practice rounds together. What was one more tussle between pals?
Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, arrived in Charlotte with his game in retreat, in the middle of a divorce, looking for any swing thought to hold on to. He found one in a Tuesday session on the practice range—keeping his club face more square at the setup—and it held firm for most of the tournament, at least until a snap hook off the 72nd tee left Glover in a spot only Ballesteros would relish. Glover took a drop after his ball came to rest next to a fan, and while he hovered his six-iron above the ball (he told his caddie, Don Cooper, that he would not ground the club as he took his stance), his ball suddenly rolled several feet downhill into a worse lie. His stance, though, was slightly improved, and from 174 yards Glover hit a draw from a fade lie, knocked a 96-foot chip shot seven feet past the hole and made the comebacker. You bet it was a Seve par.
"I can't tell you how pleased I am with the way my short game was coming down the stretch," said Glover, who held off Byrd on the first playoff hole after Byrd had pulled even at 15-under par with a 72nd-hole birdie.
It was Glover's first victory since his Open triumph at Bethpage Black and his first since revelations of struggles in his personal life, which Glover declined to discuss. His new beard notwithstanding, his eyes said what the victory meant to him, the title a fitting coda to an emotional week.
When Ballesteros died last Saturday morning after a long battle with brain cancer, the tournament became a place to celebrate a life and grieve a death. Some players told stories. Some wrote Twitter messages. Many added black ribbons to their attire. Seve's spirit was everywhere. Sir Nick Faldo broke down in the broadcast booth talking about Seve and the Ryder Cup. During the final round there was a one-minute moment of silence at 3:08 p.m, with play stopped and started again at the sound of an air horn.
In the playoff, when Byrd's shot from a fairway bunker settled on a downhill slope inside the hazard stakes, his own Seve moment wasn't to be. He knocked his difficult birdie chip 25 feet past the cup and missed the putt, while Glover two-putted for par and the win.
"He putted like a genius," Cooper said of his man.
The word, especially now, still evokes Seve.