Jeff Shain

After last year’s untimely WD, Tommy Gainey is back at Harbour Town

Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey watches a putt on the practice green during the Tuesday practice round for the RBC Heritage.
Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey watches a putt on the practice green during the Tuesday practice round for the RBC Heritage.

Physical pain wasn’t the issue. As excruciating as it was, Tommy Gainey has learned how to deal with pain. Nor was it the extended stay on his living room couch waiting for his back to eventually calm down.

And there isn’t any nagging what-if you might expect would come with having to withdraw while standing one shot off the lead.

For Gainey, the worst was seeing his 2-year-old son come running his way.

“It hurts when you see your son coming at you, and you can’t pick him up,” the Hartsville native said Tuesday. “You know you can’t pick him up, but he doesn’t know that — and that’s the hardest thing to deal with.”

Gainey is back this week at the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, fully 52 weeks after his untimely withdrawal prompted when his back locked up 9  1/2 holes into his second round. Call it a second chance, maybe even unfinished business.

Just don’t suggest Harbour Town owes him.

“A lot of players don’t have the opportunity to get an exemption to play this golf course two years in a row,” Gainey said. “I feel very fortunate, very lucky.”

Indeed, tournament director Steve Wilmot deserves credit for giving Gainey the chance to finish what he started. Whether it can approach the run he made through 27 1/2 holes last year — well, that could be a tall order.

This isn’t Dustin Johnson or Jordan Spieth we’re talking about. Gainey belongs to that far larger subset where such opportunities are fewer and farther between. To see one go by the wayside for something not exactly performance related has to leave a bad taste.

“The good is I was one shot out of the lead when I got hurt. And the bad part is I got hurt being one shot out of the lead,” Gainey said. “So the problem with that is I had a chance to win.

“I think the way I was playing, the way everything was going, I was going to at least (finish) top-10 that week — if not win the tournament.”

Gainey had finished up his opening round with five birdies in his last 12 holes, then kept it going with three birdies on the front side of Round 2. When his 6-foot birdie found the bottom of the cup at No. 8, he suddenly was nipping at world No. 1 Jason Day and Kevin Chappell.

Two holes later, calamity. Gainey caught his second shot at No. 10 a bit heavy, and the back went. He bunted his way through one more hole, hoping things would loosen up, before finally giving in to the inevitable.

Eventual diagnosis: Two herniated discs, two others merely bulging. No surgery required, but he was going to be laid up a while.

It was more than six months before he hit his next competitive shot. It was three months before he could swing a club at all, much of which was spent laid up on the couch. Other than the occasional twinge, Gainey’s back never had been an issue.

“Everybody has back spasms,” he said. “You move the wrong way, step the wrong way, and it spasms up. Nothing really serious. It spasms and just kind of eases off. But this one didn’t.”

What Gainey found out is that he wasn’t in nearly the shape he thought he was. No, he wasn’t overweight. He got plenty of exercise. But his back was nowhere in a condition to support a golf swing approaching 115 mph.

“Wow, I didn’t see that coming,” he said.

Physical therapist Suzy Kohl gets the lion’s share of credit for building him back up. They took things slowly, never trying to push the envelope. That was fine with Gainey.

“They had a schedule,” he said, “and we were going to stick with the schedule. We weren’t going to try to get ahead of the schedule because if you try to get ahead of yourself, normally that doesn’t work out.”

Though Gainey’s health is back, his game is still behind the curve. He’s made just two cuts in eight starts between the PGA Tour and Tour, still awaiting his first finish inside the top 30.

Perhaps Harbour Town can provide the magic. Even before last year, Gainey was third at the 2011 RBC Heritage, one shot out of the playoff that saw Brandt Snedeker outlast Luke Donald on the third extra hole.

“I don’t know what it is about this golf course. I have a lot of good feelings here,” he said. “Mojo, if you want to use that. I just feel really good when I step on this golf course.”

Again, Harbour Town doesn’t owe him. Golf doesn’t work that way. But there might be some justice if he can simply pick things up somewhat close to where things were before the injury.

Whatever happens, he long ago made peace with the situation.

“It was just God’s plan for me,” he said. “It was hard for me to deal with it when it happened. But He also woke me up to realize I need to to start doing different things. ... He just woke me up that I’m not as healthy as I thought I was.”

Jeff Shain: 843-706-8123, @jeffshain