After another successful season in '07 ($1.1 million, top 10 in driving accuracy and putting average), Gay began to feel as if he finally belonged. "I started feeling less stressed on the course," he says. "Bad hole, bad start, bad round—I simply let it roll off my shoulders." Some of this new confidence was expressed in his wardrobe, as he began wearing some of loudest pants on the PGA Tour. Maybe he's trying to keep up with Kimberly, whose tastes run toward hot pink and rhinestones; then again, Margaret Gay has a thing for jewelry and gold lamé purses. ("He basically married someone just like his mother," Kimberly explains.)
Gay's upgraded play had erased his usual worries about job security; now all that was missing was a long overdue victory. When he arrived last year at Mayakoba he had the familiar feeling of being left out—he's never played in a World Golf Championship—but he perked up with his first practice round on the El Camaleon course. "I liked it as soon as I saw it because there are not a lot of courses on Tour where anybody can win, and this was one of 'em," Gay says. "There are a lot of courses where long hitters have such a huge advantage. Mayakoba, if you hit it off-line, there was a lot of trouble. And it was breezy, so with everyone missing greens, short game becomes more important. Basically, it was perfect for my game."
That week the Gays also enjoyed lots of family fun, hanging out at the beach and exploring the charming town of Playa del Carmen. "Barbara Nicklaus once told me that the only thing you can control is his mood when he walks out the door, and I have tried to live that," says Kimberly. "Brian was going to the course every day in such a good mood, and I think it carried over to his play."
Gay opened with rounds of 66 and 67 to put himself in contention, and then on Saturday broke out with a career-low 62, a lifetime of want and desire and practice and preparation distilled into one perfect round. That gave him a five-stroke lead, and he played bravely on Sunday, draining a 30-footer to save par on the 16th hole to secure the victory.
Kimberly spent much of the final round simultaneously fighting back tears and working the phones, organizing a private plane to ferry the family home on Sunday evening—"a first for us," she says. In Orlando a limo was waiting at the airport and about 40 friends and family had gathered at the Gays' house. They partied all night, with Brian winding up in the swimming pool sometime around 5 a.m. This year's final round at Hilton Head was also a family affair, as Kimberly secretly arranged for three dozen relatives to sneak into town on Sunday morning, leading to another joyous celebration. This time it petered out at 2:30 a.m.
Gay's victories have also lit up message boards across the Internet. At lynnblakegolf.com the other disciples have rejoiced in the success of one of their own, while at pgatour.com hundreds of congratulatory notes have poured in from people who had quietly waited all these years for Gay's breakthrough, including a handful of the old-timers he used to play with at Fort Rucker.
Gay's victory two weeks ago was a revelation to many, but his efficiency had already been quantified in the final 2008 stats: 196th in driving distance (270.5 yards) but first in scrambling (getting up and down 64.8% of the time he missed a green) and seventh in putting average. The Tour uses a complicated metric to determine scoring average, adjusting the number to take into account the scores of the rest of the field. Old-fashioned unadjusted scoring is also tabulated, and when all the strokes were counted Gay finished at 70.11, second only to Bob Tway (69.94)—remarkable given that Gay routinely gives up 30 or 40 yards off the tee to his playing partners.
Gay also made a career-best $2,205,513 in '08, but it wasn't quite enough. Because nothing ever comes easy for the Gays, Brian's career year was a little bittersweet in the end. He went into the season's final tournament, at Disney, 30th on the money list. If he could protect his position in the top 30, he would automatically earn a spot in this year's no-cut World Golf Championship at Doral, with its free money and gimme World Ranking points, and, more gloriously, finally punch his ticket to the Masters, where Gay has never played. Because Mayakoba is an event held concurrently with a World Golf Championship, the lords of Augusta don't deign to invite the winner. ("Like I said, we're used to being told no," says Kimberly.) At Disney, Brian put too much pressure on himself and struggled for two days, missing the cut and dropping to 31st on the list, by a whopping $3,342.
"We had a pity party for a few days," says Kimberly, "but I think it made Brian more determined to play well in 2009."
Indeed, at the outset of this season Gay was quietly one of the hottest players in the game, as over his first four events he shot 17 straight rounds at par or better. The golf world belatedly began to take notice. "I heard them on the Golf Channel talking about me making the Presidents Cup team and I thought they had the wrong guy," Brian said in late February.