Boo Weekley won at Hilton Head in 2007 and again in '08, and coming into last week's Verizon Heritage, all through South Carolina there were old men at sleepy filling stations talking about a threepeat. With chew under his lip and duck hunting on his mind, Boo's an easy fit in the Low Country. He has looked right at home, parading around in his rumpled khakis and that old-school Phi Beta Haggis tartan sport coat they give the Heritage winner.
But by 5 p.m. on Sunday, Boo was putting his clubs in the back of a van packed with a couple dozen other Tour bags that soon would be rolling through the night to New Orleans. He knew the truth, and so did everybody else: His reign was over, and a new guy, 37-year-old Brian Gay, would be slipping into the tartan coat soon enough. BG had a 10-shot lead on a slippery and mossy course with itty-bitty greens. Not one of the veteran brand-name golfers behind him could make anything like a move—your Lee Janzens, your Davis Love IIIs, etc.—and in the end Gay won by 10. No mercy rule on the PGA Tour.
It was strange. Big wins usually come on big courses: Tiger by 12 at Augusta in '97; Tiger by 15 at Pebble Beach in the 2000 U.S. Open. The par-71 Harbour Town Golf Links is not even 7,000 yards when it's all stretched out. Ten is the biggest win margin ever at the Heritage. Gay now has the tournament scoring record, 20 under par. Very nice. His winning score, 264, should be drug-tested. The third-round leader closed with a 64, low man by two shots. Pow!
Poor CBS. After a spine-tingling Sunday at Augusta—Tiger! Phil! Angel! Chad! Kenny!—Sunday at Hilton Head had Jim Nantz & Co. resorting to pictures of luffing windsurfers and a group effort to describe Brian Gay's bold look (pants the color of an unripe banana; a shirt he stole from George Jetson). Gay himself described his getup as "fashion forward." To which he sensibly added, "if you will."
Janzen, winner of two U.S. Opens, didn't scare him. Neither did José María Olazábal, winner of two green jackets. Nor Todd Hamilton, winner of a British Open. Nor Tom Lehman, who turned 50 last month, another claret jug winner. Ditto for DL3, winner of a PGA Championship—and five tartan coats. Whatever happened to the phrase, "The Verizon Heritage doesn't begin until the back nine on Sunday"? Nothing doing, not this year.
But in other ways tradition reigned at the Heritage. The Hilton Head stop is the spring break of golf tournaments. After two years of the Boo Weekley Show the crowd didn't quite know what to make of the new guy, with his spiky hair and gargantuan lead, his mechanical-looking setup and his unresponsive demeanor. Among the spectators, or at least in one crowd of overdaiquiried collegians in flip-flops and polo shirts, you could hear witty comments like, "Brian's gay." You can be sure that Brian Gay's been hearing that all his life. Evidently they knew nothing of Kimberly Gay, a north Florida gal who seemingly walked off the set of Dallas, circa 1989, and onto the PGA Tour. You'd want her at your party, unless you like dead parties.
Anyway, his last name brings to mind the Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue and these immortal lyrics: "But ya oughtta thank me before I die/For the gravel in yer guts and the spit in yer eye/'Cause I'm the son of a bitch that named you Sue."
It so happens that Brian Gay comes by his surname the usual Western way, inherited from his father, M. Sgt. Joseph Gay, U.S. Army (ret.). There is, fittingly, no retreat in Brian Gay's career. This is a man who toiled for seven years in professional golf before cracking the PGA Tour's top 125, a man who played in 292 Tour events until winning for the first time, last year in Cancún. To keep at it takes guts. Of course a lack of other options helps too.
That doesn't apply only to Gay. It pretty much goes for any of the golfers. There's nothing like a tanking economy to get a player back on the range and back on his game. Todd Hamilton had a solid Masters this year, coming in 15th. He was solid at Hilton Head, finishing in a tie for fourth. Some of golf's ever-growing population of talking heads have been hyperfocused on how much Hamilton, at 43, wants to, quote, get back in the winner's circle, unquote. That's all well and good, and every Tour player wants to win, but there's something else dear to every man, woman and child who has his or her name sewn on the side of a supersized golf bag. It's simple: Hamilton, in the final year of a five-year exemption for winning the 2004 British Open, made $131,000 at Augusta; he made $251,000 at Hilton Head. What else on God's green earth is he going to do to earn that kind of money?
"I don't know how to do a whole lot of other things," Hamilton says. "My father owned a grocery store when I was growing up, and I was a pretty good bagger. I didn't like to dust off the shelves. I didn't mind carrying the ladies' groceries out for them. No offense to the people who do that, but I wouldn't want to have to do that." In the last few months, after 30-plus years in the game, he has figured something out: Don't practice in heavy winds. Practicing in big wind fouls the swing. Knowing that has helped him make better scores, and just in time.