Brian Gay was in a faraway land, knowing only where he wanted to go without any assurances he would get there.
It was approaching midnight in India, and the shuttle bus to the hotel was already full. Gay hopped into a cab with his bride of two weeks and two other men he had never seen, then hung on for the ride of his life.
“Everything is dark and we’re driving through Calcutta with no lights,” Gay said Monday evening. “Every few minutes, he would flick the lights on and off. I guess it somehow saves the battery. We thought we would never be seen again. You’ve just got to trust and believe that you’ll get to where you’re supposed to be going.”
They arrived safely at the hotel that night. Gay wound up missing the cut in the 1997 Classic India Open, barely caught the last flight out and headed back to the Philippines for the next adventure in another of golf’s outposts.
That’s what makes his return to Asia next week so rewarding.
Gay is going to China not because he has to play, but because he can. His two victories this year, by a combined 15 shots, earned him a spot in the HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championship with a 78-man field featuring Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington.
The long flight to Shanghai?
That’s nothing compared with the journey that brought Gay to this stage of his career.
The 37-year-old had a breakthrough season that doesn’t get enough attention. He produced the year’s largest margin of victory at Hilton Head (10 shots), then won in Memphis by five. Gay has topped $3 million in earnings and has risen to No. 38 in the world.
Going back to Asia is more about celebration than desperation.
“The last time I went, I was pretty fresh out of college, looking for anywhere to play to make some money,” Gay said.
Gay won the Southeastern Conference title twice and helped lead Florida to a national title in 1993, a year in which he also played on the Walker Cup team and was medalist in U.S. Amateur qualifying. The next step proved to be the toughest.
After winning nine times on four mini-tours, Gay heard about other Americans going to Asia and thought he would give it a try. His first stop was the Mitsubishi Motors-Southwoods Open in the Philippines, where he tied for fifth and earned $8,667 from a $250,000 purse (next week in Shanghai offers a $7 million purse with $1.2 million to the winner and $25,000 for last place).
His travels took him from the Philippines to Malaysia to Singapore to India to Thailand with one break – he returned to Alabama in the midst of this adventure to get married.
Gay had met Kimberly in an airport. She didn’t know much about golf, but love made her learn quickly. No sooner had vows been exchanged, they were on their way to Singapore.
“I knew there was no such word as ‘quit.’ It was ‘Where are we going and how do we get there?”’ Kimberly said. “It was time to figure out how we would live this dream. We just never thought about not making it.”
The honeymoon almost ended before it began.
Gay had his wife caddie for him at the Rolex Masters at Singapore Island, where he opened with a 65. She used a pull cart, and the job was going along fine until Gay hit into a fairway bunker.
“He tells me I have to rake the bunker and I said, ‘Oh, no. I’m not raking that bunker.’ He said, ‘You have to. Caddies rake the bunker.’ The other players are waiting in the fairway, and finally he rakes the bunker,” she said. “That’s how little I knew about golf. We almost have this fight on the golf course and he shoots 65.”
They left there for India, then to the Philippines, where Gay recalls watching from his hotel room in the middle of the night as Woods won the 1997 Masters by a record 12 shots.
He couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever make it to the PGA Tour, or to Augusta National.
“There were good weeks and bad weeks,” he said. “There were times when you said, ‘I can’t believe I’m over here.’ I stayed in some rough places. But the experience of playing other places and all the things you have to deal with, you learn a lot of patience in a hurry.”
The patience finally was rewarded when Gay made it through Q-school and found some stability, although it took him until last year – 293 starts on the PGA – before he won for the first time at the Mayacoba Classic in Mexico.
Kimberly Gay has come to appreciate the coincidences in life.
Cancun was the first vacation they took together, and 10 years later, he won his first PGA Tour event there. She had planned on going to Singapore this week until Gay, worn out from a big year, decided to play only in Shanghai. She will stay home with their two daughters, 10 and 5, although she couldn’t help but notice that Gay leaves Saturday, Oct. 31, the day she considers their first date.
And she still treasures those times in Asia.
“We were at a crossroads,” Kimberly said. “Brian was like, ‘What do I have to do to get my game better?’ I think he had in his brain that he had to make a certain amount of sacrifice. This might be something he deserves, because he paid the price.”