Love, Gainey had little in common ... until Sunday

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- They play golf, and they play it for a living. The similarities, essentially, end there.

The largest course in the world couldn't contain the vast differences between Davis Love III and Tommy "Two Gloves" Gainey, the final two combatants in the final official PGA Tour event of the 2008 season.

The son of a renowned golf pro, destined for greatness who starred in college versus a guy who worked in a water heater factory and sold furniture to make ends meet.

A major champion on his way to the Hall of Fame and a guy headed back to Q-school.

North Carolina vs. South Carolina -- and all the perceived biases that brings.

A classic golf swing and a guy with a self-taught, Arnold Palmer-like lash.

And, of course, a difference of about $36 million in career earnings heading into Sunday's final round at the Children's Miracle Network Classic.

"It's like the other end of the spectrum," Gainey said after coming up a shot short of Love on Sunday. "You know how they say opposites attract, well we're totally opposite. I don't know much about his background, but he went to North Carolina, he was an all-star, all-world. You know me, hey, I graduated high school and I went to work."

Love and Gainey matched closing 8-under-par 64s at the Walt Disney World Resort's Magnolia course, and it took two stellar par saves on the last two holes for Love to hold off Gainey -- who had birdied the last two holes to make Love sweat for his 20th victory.

It was quite the week for both players, but in entirely different ways. Love, 44, one of the most popular and well-known figures in the game for the past 20 years, has been working diligently to come back from a severe ankle injury suffered a year ago that caused him to tumble out of the top 50 in the world and actually had him scrambling to keep his PGA Tour card until a few weeks ago.

Gainey, 32, who gained a measure of fame by playing on the Golf Channel's reality series "The Big Break" (he won Big Break VII), and gained his nickname because of his unusual practice of wearing two gloves (he used to play baseball and swings the club with a 10-fingered baseball grip), came into the week ranked 228th on the PGA Tour money list.

Yes, this is the land of Disney and magic and all that. But for Gainey to have come out of nowhere and win would have been ridiculous. He had made just five cuts in 23 starts heading into the week and earned the equivalent of Love's jet-fuel money, about $65,000. He had resigned himself to a trip to Q-school -- where he made it through all three stages last year to earn his card.

Because he was languishing outside of the top 150 on the money list, Gainey was facing a trip to the second stage this week in nearby Brooksville, Fla. The $496,000 he earned was enough to squeak into the 148th spot. He won't be exempt next year, but he avoids second stage and will have at least some status on the Nationwide Tour in 2009. Plus, the top-10 finish here gets him into the Sony Open in Hawaii, the first full-field event of the season in January.

"I had nothing to lose," Gainey said. "Being 228th on the money list? Five cuts? Playing horrible, terrible? I mean, you can just keep naming it. I finally had a good week."

Sure it was, for a guy who used to make $8.75 an hour working at the A.O. Smith Water heater factory. Two Gloves had so little money back then that a friend put up the $750 necessary to enter a mini tour event. Gainey won it (a $15,000 first prize) and moved on to such places as the Grand Strand Tour, the Hooters Tour and the Tarheel Tour.

Say what you will about Gainey's unorthodox swing, but he earned more than $100,000 in 2006 and 2007 while winning three times and had 13 top-10 finishes on the Tarheel Tour. Then he made it through Q-school to give himself a spot on the PGA Tour this year -- where he never finished better than a tie for 39th until Sunday.

There was no Tarheel Tour for Love. He was a Tar Heel, playing college golf for the University of North Carolina. Love won his first tournament in 1987. Twenty years ago this month, Love's father and renowned teaching pro Davis Love Jr. died in a plane crash in Jacksonville, and the son has spent the ensuing years trying to live up to his unlimited potential.

Along the way, there have been whispers that he is an underachiever, that his one major victory (the 1997 PGA Championship) and now 20 tour titles still fall short of what he should have achieved. And Love would likely agree.

But 20 wins is 20 wins, a huge number in the game, especially before Tiger Woods came along to skew our thinking. Love has the fourth-most victories of any active player, trailing just Woods (65), Phil Mickelson (34) and Vijay Singh (34). Throw in two Players Championship victories, six U.S. Ryder Cup appearances and a near-certain captaincy in the future, and Love is all but assured of the Hall of Fame.

"It's a big win for me," Love said after earning a lifetime exemption on the PGA Tour with that 20th win. "It's been a long time. Everybody like me expects me to play better. And even after getting hurt, I should have played better this year. It shouldn't have taken this long to put four good rounds together."

Gainey was saying the same thing, and was thrilled in his own way for doing so when he did. The money ($496,800 for his solo second-place finish) is huge. He avoids a trip to the second stage of Q-school. And he can take some confidence into next year, something that had Love fired up as well.

In that regard, they have a few more things in common.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.