IT ALL seemed so effortless. There was Brian Gay two Sundays ago at the Verizon Heritage, basking in a runaway victory as he strolled down one of golf's most famous holes, the 18th at Harbour Town. On TV the announcers had run out of superlatives; on the final green Gay was engulfed by his beaming wife and adorable daughters. In one fell swoop he had scored a $1 million payday, lasting job security and an invitation to the Masters, to say nothing of the admiration of his peers and a nation of golf fans. It took only four days of stellar golf to produce this picture-perfect scene, but Gay's journey has been much longer, and more taxing, than appearances would indicate. ¶ Everybody's All-American at Florida, Gay, 37, spent the better part of a decade and a half trying to find his place on the PGA Tour. It was a wearying journey that entailed grinding through B-list tournaments and sweating out travel expenses, but through it all Gay somehow held on to the belief that someday his time would come. ¶ "There were low moments," he says. "Lots of them. But I never lost the desire to win. I never let myself believe I wouldn't."
He was sustained by the endless cheerleading of his wife, Kimberly. For the Gays, golf has always been a team sport, and theirs is one of the PGA Tour's most interesting partnerships. If Hilton Head marked their arrival, last year's Mayakoba Golf Classic was one of the most important stops along the way, a breakthrough that came in Brian's 293rd career start. Because it happened in a faraway place (Playa del Carmen, Mexico) on the same day that Tiger Woods was winning the glamorous Accenture Match Play Championship, Gay's maiden victory did not generate many headlines, but it resonated deeply within the tight-knit Tour community as a triumph of such throwback values as hard work and perseverance. At Mayakoba players and caddies lingered after their final rounds so they could be on hand to congratulate the Gays, and on Golf Channel, commentator Jerry Foltz got choked up calling the final few holes.
"I like Brian a lot but I wouldn't say we're close friends," says Foltz, who was playing on the Nationwide tour in the late 1990s when Gay was cutting his teeth on that circuit. "It was emotional for me because I knew how much the victory meant to Brian on a personal level. I really almost lost it when his two daughters ran out on the final green. Can you imagine—for the first time in their lives he could say to them, 'Daddy is a winner.' And I also knew how much it meant to Kimberly. She is such a big part of the community of the Tour. How sweet it must have been for her to finally get to experience that."
In the heady moments after her husband's first victory, Kimberly received dozens of e-mails and text messages from the sorority of Tour wives. "I always believed in the camaraderie of the Tour," Kimberly says, "but what happened after Brian won showed me how much people genuinely care. Amanda Leonard"—wife of Justin—"wrote something that touched me deeply: This is your victory too. I embrace that."
And so does Brian, though he has a little trouble articulating it. His wife is boisterous and funny and theatrical and gregarious. Brian is none of these things. "They're living proof that opposites do in fact attract," says Gay's swing coach, Lynn Blake. But Brian has no trouble saying of his wife of 12 years, "She's always been there for me. Always. I guess we make a pretty good team."
BRIAN'S JOURNEY to the Tour began in an unlikely place: Fort Rucker, in southeast Alabama, where his father, Joseph, was a master sergeant of flight operations. Joe was an archetypal military dad—stern and hard to please, and often gone for long stretches overseas. In his youth Joe had been on the All-Army golf team, and the game was one thing father and son could share. When Joe was away, Brian, an only child, spent long days at Fort Rucker's practice areas, often alone. When he was 10, Brian was invited to tag along for 18 holes with a sprawling group of salty retired military veterans who hung out at the course. "I remember that day so clearly," says Brian's mom, Margaret. "I picked him up at the course, and he had the biggest smile on his face I had ever seen."
These surrogate father figures encouraged young Brian's development in numerous ways. Because he couldn't hit it as far as the grown men he was competing against, he learned early to rely on a deadly short game and crafty course management. Playing mostly with adults also led to an on-course maturity that was manifested in a control of his emotions that didn't always end when the tournament was over. Margaret and her son had countless variations of the same phone conversation when Brian was at a junior tournament and she at her office, working in the civil service.
"How was your day, Brian?"
"How'd you play?