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Crowds adopt Gainey as one of their own

Move over, Davis Love III. Take a well-deserved rest, Boo Weekley. The fun-loving, Southern-fried galleries of Harbour Town Golf Links have a new golden child, and this one is South Carolina born, bred and committed.

Despite bigger names, larger storylines and even a three-hole playoff that didn't even include him, a long-hitting, two-glove wearing, South Carolina Gamecock-loving everyman was the talk of Harbour Town during much of Sunday's exciting finish to the 43rd Heritage.

While the tournament was won by Brandt Snedeker in a three-hole playoff over third-round leader Luke Donald, one could argue that Sunday was actually owned by Tommy "Two Gloves" Gainey, who made a spirited charge up the leaderboard before falling one shot short of joining the playoff party. I followed Gainey on Sunday's back nine and witnessed the roars, the cheers and the creative calls just as I have in recent years with Weekley and even farther back with Love.

The native of Bishopville and popular graduate of Golf Channel's reality show "The Big Break," Gainey was a Sunday rock star at Harbour Town as he charged up the leaderboard in an effort to earn his first PGA Tour victory. With every boomed drive and holed putt, the roars got louder. With every hole leading up to the 18th, and with Gainey still in reach of earning a spot in the playoff, the tension grew stronger and encouragement more energetic.

Over the past 16 years I've witnessed Heritage crowds adopt and adore specific players, and this weekend that man was Tommy Two Gloves. When that happens, it can practically lift a player to things greater than ever believed possible; it can will a man to do things not for himself, but for others who just want to see the unexpected happen and untapped potential fulfilled.

The cheers were constant and encouraging, and they continued right up until Gainey missed a birdie putt on 18 to resign himself to third place. Victory or not, in fine Hilton Head fashion, the golfing public had identified their man, and they weren't going to stop pulling for him until it was all over. It's just another reason why it would be a crime if this region were to lose its beloved PGA Tour event after this year.

"You know it's awesome," Gainey said of the support he received from the galleries. "It was just awesome. As I said about this golf tournament, the Heritage, it's unbelievable. All the players love coming here."

And there are, to be sure, certain players the golf fans of Hilton Head Island love to see play here. They have cheered Love to an amazing five Heritage titles. They whooped and hollered Weekley to back-to-back crowns in 2007 and 2008, still his only two victories on the PGA Tour.

This time around, Tommy Two Gloves won the adoration and appreciation at Harbour Town, and it followed him around the course despite a slow start to his final round. Gainey, who's never won on the PGA Tour but did triumph twice last year on the Nationwide Tour to earn his 2011 tour status, began Sunday's round three shots behind Donald at 8 under. Two bogeys in the first three holes, however, was not the start 2007 Big Break winner was looking for.

"I hit one bad shot in three holes and I was 2 over. So I was a little steamed. I was steaming pretty good," Gainey said of his Sunday start.

Yet his faithful gallery stayed behind him, and an eagle on the par-5 fifth began Gainey's charge at the leaders and ignited a good, ol' Southern parade of sorts around Harbour Town.

The version of Gainey we saw a couple of years ago might have packed things in after his tough start, but he has matured from his previous stint on the big circuit, and the huge gallery following wouldn't let him steam away a chance to contend. "Tommy Two" followed the eagle on five with a birdie on the difficult par-4 eighth to make the turn exactly where he started, three back of the lead.

A subsequent birdie on the par-4 12th elicited a roar that could be heard all around the back nine, and then another birdie on the par-5 15th raised the decibel level even higher. Gainey was within a stroke of the lead heading into Harbour Town's difficult final three holes. The run to within one also got the ever-growing gallery even more stirred up in support of their new man.

"The fans have been unreal, unbelievable," Gainey said of the entire tournament but specifically the back nine Sunday. "I can say all the big words you want to hear, but it's been awesome to be here this week. And it's been even better to play well in front of them, in front of the home folks for me."

After his drive went a little too far on 16, leaving him behind a tree in the fairway, Gainey was forced to make a gutsy up and down to keep the momentum going. A par on the par-3 17th hole left the South Carolina native needing to make birdie on 18, just as Snedeker had done an hour earlier to get to 12 under. Two solid shots left a 15-foot birdie putt, but the hopes of Gainey and his Tiger-like gallery were deflated when his effort slid some four feet by the hole.

"It was a bad putt. That was on me there," the always honest Gainey explained with equal parts disappointment in the outcome and pride in the effort. "I know I needed to make that one to have some sort of opportunity to get into a playoff. At the time I knew 12 was in. I just hit a bad putt."

It was, in effect, a bad close to an otherwise great week for Gainey. Not only did "Two Gloves" earn some significant coin, he also proved to himself and others that he can compete against the best on the PGA Tour. As an added bonus, he also earned himself quite a loyal following in his home state's biggest sporting event.

"I'm pretty happy, but still disappointed," Gainey said. "But, you know, what can you do? I just keep putting myself in position and sooner or later I'm going to knock that door down."

When and if he does, there will be a throng of Lowcountry fans cheering right along with him. Welcome to the club, Tommy Two Gloves.

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