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Gay's win at Hilton Head shot him to 11th in the points race; he would make an exasperating alternate-shot foe. His instructor, Blake, sees even bigger things ahead. "I've always felt that Brian has the game and the courage to win a U.S. Open," he says. "He simply has to get there first." Having survived qualifying five times in the past 13 years (but never making the cut), Gay will be exempt into the Open for the first time if he can remain in the top 10 on the money list by May 25—he's ninth—or crack the top 50 in the World Ranking. (He's 52nd.) Gay has played in only one British Open and three PGA Championships (his best finish, 20th, came last year at Oakland Hills) and is now well-positioned to earn exemptions to both.
More exciting is that next year he will finally get to tee it up at the Masters. Before settling at Fort Rucker, Gay lived in Louisville, Ga., about 40 miles southwest of Augusta, and he has always had a romantic attachment to the Masters. After they were married, Brian and Kimberly went on what she calls "a working honeymoon" as she caddied for him on the Asian tour. "I remember quite clearly, we were in the Philippines," says Kimberly, "and at three in the morning there was Brian sitting on the end of the bed watching the Masters on a tiny TV in our hotel room. He watched all night and then went out and played a tournament round in the morning."
It will be a thrill to watch a putting wizard like Gay try to solve Augusta National's greens, and after his 10-shot victory in Hilton Head there's no reason to think he can't win anytime, anywhere. The day after joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Johnny Miller, José María Olazábal and Steve Jones as the only players since 1970 to register a double-digit win on Tour, Brian was rolling down I-95 with Kimberly and the girls on the way home from Hilton Head, their rented SUV carrying a very conspicuous plaid jacket. "Do I feel different today?" Brian asked, parroting a question. "Well, I'm tired and hung over." After a chuckle he said, "I do think I'm ready to go to a different level where I can be a regular contender, no matter what week it is. My game is good enough, and now I have that belief."
Kimberly puts it another way: "You know what's funny? After he putted out at Hilton Head, one of my first thoughts was, Now we finally get to go to Firestone [for the World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational]. All these years we've been knocking on the door. Just knocking and knocking and knocking, and it's as if now someone has finally let us in. Of course there's so much excitement, especially the way Brian did it, but I think the strongest emotion might be relief. It's like, Phew, we finally made it!"
Even as Brian's career has taken off, he and Kimberly remain grounded. If you treat a professional athlete and his wife to dinner, you're usually lucky if they grunt an acknowledgment. If it's the Gays, the next morning Kimberly will hand deliver a thank-you note (on hot pink stationery with a leopard border) that says they are "humbled" by the attention. After SI's Todd Bigelow took some pictures for this story he found that wine and cheese had been delivered to his hotel room, a show of appreciation from the Gays.
"Our theme this year is to be thankful every day for where we are," says Kimberly. "Before almost every round I have told Brian, 'Try to step outside of yourself and appreciate this.' This year he was playing the Mercedes Championship for the first time. I know he wanted to focus on the golf, but I told him to look at the ocean, look at the palm trees, try to count the whales. We are so lucky to be leading this life. It has been such a struggle to get here, we never want to take anything for granted."
While his wife spoke in a passionate torrent of words, Brian sat, nodding. Did he have anything he wanted to add?
Gay flashed a smile. "Nah," he answered. "She pretty much said it all."