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"O.K., Brian, just quit it and tell me how you finished."
Says Margaret, who is as much of an extrovert as her daughter-in-law, "That's when I'd start hooting and hollering."
After dominating the local tournament scene as a tween, Brian was encouraged by the Fort Rucker elders to test himself on grander stages. "Every February we would sit down and work out his golf budget," says Margaret. "To be honest, there wasn't a lot of extra money, so I told Brian if those guys wanted him to play in all these tournaments, they would have to help pay for it." The vets passed the hat, and Brian played just enough big-time junior tournaments to attract the attention of college recruiters. He wound up at Florida, on the same powerhouse teams as future Tour players Chris Couch and Pat Bates. Gay won two SEC titles, and he was the leader of the 1993 national championship squad.
At the start of his junior year, in the fall of '92, Brian and Kimberly met in the Gainesville airport. He was en route to a tournament; she had recently graduated from Florida State and was working a desk job for Bristol-Meyers Squibb. ("Don't you dare put that in there or everybody will know I'm older than he is," she pleads.) After a little flirting they went their separate ways but wound up rendezvousing a few weeks later at a Florida-Georgia football game. "She asked me out," says Brian. "She may try to deny it, but it's true."
Despite the difference in the volume of their personalities, they had plenty in common, as Kimberly had grown up 50 miles from Fort Rucker, in Chipley, Fla., a Panhandle town so tiny "we didn't get a McDonald's until my senior year in high school," she says. Kimberly knew nothing about golf, but once she and Brian began dating, she educated herself by secretly watching tournament telecasts and taking playing lessons on the sly. Their marital life would be defined by golf from the beginning—in 1996 they became engaged the night before the first round of the U.S. Open, Brian's PGA Tour debut. Kimberly threw all of her considerable energy into being a supportive spouse. "If I had stayed in the business world, I feel like by now I could be running a major corporation," she says with enough conviction that there is no point in doubting her. "But this is the life we chose, and we were in it together."
Brian quickly discovered that his stellar college credentials meant nothing in the cutthroat pro game, and he struggled to find his way. What exactly was the problem? "Second stage of Q school," he says with a wince. His annual struggles there—he would fail five times—led to an extended tour of golf's minor leagues, including cameos on the Sunshine Players, Golden Bear, Emerald Coast, Gulf Coast, Gary Player, Tommy Armour, Hooters, Asian and Nationwide tours. What allowed Brian to keep going was his belief in his own talent (fortified by his nine wins on four mini-tours), his bride's rah-rah enthusiasm and, most of all, a deep-pocketed sponsor in Robert Shaw, a carpet magnate who had been impressed by Gay while hosting him during a long-ago junior event. Shaw staked the Gays with $50,000 in the early years. "We paid it all back eventually," Kimberly says with pride. She also took a series of jobs to help cover expenses and is not too proud to admit to having once cleaned a house for money. "We did what we had to do to get by," Kimberly says. For one year, when her husband was on the Nationwide tour, and then during Brian's rookie year on the PGA Tour in 1999, she worked for Darrell Survey, an equipment monitoring company, which explains how she seems to know every player, caddie, wife, reporter and hanger-on in the golf world.
After struggling as a rookie and having to return to Q school, Brian began to settle in on Tour as a very short hitter who got by with one of the purest putting strokes in the game. Gay soldiered through nearly every tournament he could get into, never playing fewer than 31 events a season. After a poor '03, he made another gut-wrenching trip to Q school, surviving it once again. Having won so much as an amateur and on the mini-tours, Gay grew accustomed to annually having to toil just to keep his job on Tour.
And yet Kimberly never stopped believing in her husband. At one point she called Amanda Leonard, whose hubby was at the time working with celebrity swing instructor Butch Harmon. Says Amanda, "I guess Brian was struggling a little bit, and Kimberly was hoping Butch would work with him. She was calling to ask if Justin could put in a good word for Brian, because Butch is such a busy guy. I was really struck that Kimberly would reach out like that. That's not an easy call to make. It's humbling. But that's Kimberly—she believes so much in Brian, and she will fight for him."