The Humana Challenge ultimately came down to a two-man playoff between two local favorites for one spot in the Masters Tournament.
The family of Charles Howell and his supporters at Augusta Country Club were disappointed by another excruciating close call by the gifted local pro.
But the family of Brian Gay and just about all of Louisville, Ga., were elated to see the 41-year-old earn a second chance to come home to the Masters.
“You have to understand, our whole town is excited,” said Cindy Williamson, Gay’s maternal aunt who lives in Louisville along with his uncles Frank and Stan Jones and his father, Joe. “He has a huge following around here.”
The phone lines in Louisville have been burning up ever since Gay shot a Sunday 63 and survived over Howell and David Lingmerth in a three-man playoff in the California desert. His birdie on the second playoff hole secured Gay’s fourth tour victory but only his second Masters invite.
“I’d won three tournaments and only got to play the Masters once, which is pretty hard to do,” Gay said.
Gay wasn’t eligible after winning a so-called “opposite” event in Mexico in 2008, and finishing one spot short in 31st on the money list that year made it tougher to swallow. Then he finally booked his ticket a week after the 2009 Masters with a runaway victory at Hilton Head, S.C., winning again six weeks later in Memphis, Tenn.
Those wins got him into the 2010 Masters at age 38, where he missed the cut by four shots.
Unlike Howell – who knew what was at stake when he missed a 5-foot putt that would have won it for him in regulation – Gay’s mind was not encumbered by visions of Augusta as he played. He never thought at all about the Masters on Sunday until a local TV reporter asked him about it after the playoff ended.
“For some strange reason it didn’t pop into my head until he said it – which is good,” he said. “It’s great to go back. Obviously the first time was a huge thrill. I waited so long to make it. I haven’t even begun to think about any goal for the Masters. But it’s certainly been my lifelong dream to win the Masters. That would be the ultimate goal.”
That goal seemed miles away while Gay was making significant swing changes trying to add more distance at age 40. The 2012 season was his worst in nearly a decade, with nearly a quarter of his winnings coming in the final event when he finished fourth at Disney.
“Last year was a bit of a struggle,” he said. “Trying to play and make changes is pretty difficult to do. I knew it was going to be kind of a long process and tried to be as patient as I could. These things tend to take longer than you want them to.”
The fruits of that labor came together on Sunday, when Gay attacked the Palmer Course at PGA West trying to make up a six-shot deficit on leader Scott Stallings. Through 13 holes, Gay was 9-under and tied for the lead.
“This win was so different because my first three I was out in front leading,” he said. “I’ve never come from behind. So it was a totally different dynamic. It was more of an aggressive type play. Honestly, going out I felt even with a really low round I might not catch Scott with such a big lead. It was crazy and shocking and everything all together.”
The performance had his friends and family in Louisville on the edge of their seats. Well-wishers have been stopping by Mimi’s Boutique & Intimates – in the National Hills Shopping Center across the street from Augusta National – to relive Sunday’s drama with Williamson. She manages the store owned by Gay’s mother, Margaret, who also owns stores in Evans and Orlando, Fla.
“Thrilled for Brian and how he won it,” Williamson said. “I felt really bad about Charles Howell. I thought his comment in the paper was right on about the pressure not being fun. Then somebody wrote a comment telling him to lighten up. They have no idea how it is to play that game for a living and the whole world is watching you and criticizing everything you do.”
While there will be no shortage of family begging for tickets to watch him at the Masters, Gay hopes the pressure won’t be as intense on him at Augusta in April.
“I think I’ll be able to focus a little better this time and not be as distracted,” he said. “It was a big deal for me and the family and a lot of people there with my mom’s family from around the area. Hopefully it will be a little easier when I get back.”