Brian Gay could see something grand on the horizon during practice rounds at the SBS Championship in Hawaii earlier this week.
“From out on the golf course, you can see whales on the ocean,” Gay said. “You can see the spray coming off them.”
From up on the hills on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, Gay can see other grand events on his personal horizon. At 38, he’ll get to play in his first Masters in April. He’s set for the first time in his career to play in all four major championships. He’s also got his eye on something big at the end of the year. He’s eager to make the Ryder Cup after enduring the disappointment of not making the Presidents Cup last fall.
Kapalua is a reward for his best season on the PGA Tour, for claiming a pair of impressive victories in 2009. Gay won the Verizon Heritage in a 10-shot rout. He won the St. Jude Classic in a wire-to-wire victory.
While Gay isn’t one of the longest hitters on Tour, he has a reputation as a terrific putter and scrambler, skills that have helped him win three PGA Tour events in his career. Gay is sharing the rewards for last year’s success with his entire family this week in Hawaii. His wife, Kimberly, and their two children, Makinley and Brantley, are with him. So is his mom. He took them all on a whale watching expedition Tuesday.
Senior writer Randall Mell caught up with Gay for a Quick Round before the SBS Championship began:
How was the whale watching expedition?
The surf was a little rough, but we saw a giant whale jump up about 50 or 60 yards from the boat. It was pretty good.
As a professional golfer, you’ve seen a lot of the world, but how much do you really see outside the golf course and your hotel room? Do you see the sites?
I’m usually busy. It’s usually the family seeing more than I do, but, occasionally, early in the week, I’ll do something like what we did together this week whale watching. We’re trying to do a helicopter tour of the island. It’s supposed to be great.
My wife, she sees a lot. When I played in China, she went to Tiananmen Square and other sites. I was playing the Asian Tour, but I didn’t do any of that. She did all the touring by herself and she would tell me about it. She’s the cruise director putting together things for the family. I jump in when I can.
You will get to see one exotic destination close up this spring, playing in your first Masters. What will it mean to you to play Augusta National for the first time?
Growing up, I lived in Georgia. My mom’s from near Augusta. I got to go to the Masters when I was 9. It’s always been my favorite tournament in the world. I always dreamed of winning the Masters, and I’m finally going to get to go play in it. I’m excited about that.
What do you remember about that first Masters?
I remember Andy Bean taking me out onto the second tee box. I asked for his autograph, and he waved me out with him. That was pretty cool. I also remember Tom Watson snubbing me two or three times when I asked for his autograph. I hated him for like 15 years (laughing). I tried to get his autograph, and he kept shunning me away. It was a Monday or Tuesday. I was a huge Nicklaus fan, and it just gave me more reason to root against Watson. Since then, I have become a Tom Watson fan.
You’ve visited Augusta National a few times, but you’ve never played the course, right?
Never have. I’m good friends with some members. I certainly could have gone and played, but I’ve always said I was going to wait until I got into the tournament. I’ve never really tried to set up a casual round.
I don’t know. I just said I’m going to wait. I didn’t want to be a Tour player just going to play Augusta. I wanted to earn my spot.
You’re such a good putter. You led the PGA Tour in all-around putting last season. How eager are you to test your skill on Augusta National’s famed greens?
It should be interesting. I’m sure there will be a lot to learn in a short amount of time. Short hitters have won there since they made the course longer. I didn’t think it would be that way, but a lot of people are telling me that I can do well there. Zach Johnson is not a long hitter, and he won it. Mike Weir and guys who don’t hit it really far have done well there despite the added length. We’ll see.
How did you get to be such a good putter. Is that a gift, or the reward for hard work?
I think there are people who are born good putters, and people who are born not good putters. But if you aren’t a power player growing up, you strive and work to be a good putter. It’s like in basketball. There are big guys in the middle who aren’t going to be good shooters but they get rebounds and play good defense. It’s like that in golf. I was never a power hitter. When I first started playing junior tournaments at 11 and 12, guys were outdriving me a long ways. Some of the par 4s, I couldn’t reach and I had to chip and putt well. I always had that being a touch and feel player and not a power player.
What about your putter? Are you loyal to a putter, or are you a love'em-and-leave‘em kind of guy who likes to try different putters?
I don’t change putters that much. I’ve kind of used that old Anser style, if you will, which turned into the Scotty Cameron Newport. That same look, I’ve probably used 90 percent of my golfing life. I’ve used different models or brands but the same style. I got into grooves on the face a few years ago. It’s been the same head, but I’ve used different materials on the face for feel but pretty much the same look for a long time.
What are you using now?
Bettanardi. It looks like the old Anser style, but I have grooves cut in the face, which help the ball get turning over fast. It gives you better roll. I like the feel better. It feels a little softer coming off the face. That seems to help me on faster greens. The ball doesn’t jump off the face as fast.
Your wife, Kimberly, loves to watch you play and is out there a lot. Didn’t you play an Asian tour event on your honeymoon?
I went over to Asia at the beginning of ’97. I was playing the Golden Bear Tour in South Florida, wherever I could play. I decided to go to Asia just for somewhere to play. It was decent money and more experience. I flew home for the week of our wedding, and we left the day after. She flew with me to the next tournament in Singapore. She caddied for me that week. I shot 68 the first round together, which was nice.
Yeah, but after that tournament, she has never caddied again. What happened?
We got in a big argument. I forget which round. I hit it in a bunker left of the pin. I finished the hole, and she didn’t go back and rake the bunker. I told her she had to go back and rake it. She said no, the group behind was ready to go. I said you have to go back and rake it. I told her they would rather wait for her to rake that bunker than hit in one of my footprints. She wouldn’t go back, and I ended up going back to rake the bunker myself. I was a little sore at her about that.
Your wins last season were dominant performances. You won Verizon by 10 shots and St. Jude in a wire-to-wire win. Winning is supposed to be hard, but did it feel easy that week?
At the time it might have seemed like it, but it is not easy to win. It was a pretty unbelievable magical week (at Verizon). All parts of my game were sharp. The talent out here is deep. There’s a fine line being in the middle of the pack and on the cut line and leading a golf tournament. It’s humbling. People ask me, `How did you do that?’ I say I didn’t do anything I normally can’t do. It was a matter of staying in the zone for four straight days. I didn’t pull off some extraordinary shots I’ve never done before. It’s hard to explain.
As good as last year was, there was disappointment not making the Presidents Cup team on points and then not getting picked by Fred Couples. I know you had a back injury that you tried to play through late in the year that hurt you. How did not making the team affect you?
It stung for a little bit. I felt like I had a good enough year to be on the team.
I hurt my back right before going to Scotland. I was playing really good golf, but I tried to play through the back problems and I couldn’t get it done. I had a tough stretch on some tough courses, like Hazeltine (at the PGA Championship). I probably should have taken some time off to get my back right, but I was pressing through to try to make the team. If I had not been hurt, I think I would have made that team and not had to worry about being picked.
I had hoped winning twice by big margins that I would get selected, but I understand it’s hard to pick a guy who has never been on the team.
How focused on making the Ryder Cup are you this year?
That’s my big goal for the year. So is winning again. If I play the way I’m capable of playing, I think I’ll be in the running for that team.